Saturday, August 3, 2019

MOVIE REVIEWS #160: "WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?", "GREEN BOOK", "ROMA", "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY", "VICE", "A STAR IS BORN (Cooper)", "AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR", "SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY", "READY PLAYER ONE", "ISLE OF DOGS", "THE WIFE", "MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS", "AT ETERNITY'S GATE", "RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET", "OF FATHERS AND SONS", "CRAZY RICH ASIANS", "WIDOWS" , "THE GUILTY", "I AM NOT A WITCH", "LEAN ON PETE", "CALL HER GANDA", "MCQUEEN", "TEA WITH THE DAMES", "HEARTS BEAT LOUD", "LAST FLAG FLYING", "FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL", "ATOMIC BLONDE", "HOSTILES", "COLOSSAL", "MY COUSIN RACHEL (Michell)", "BRAD'S STATUS", "MY HAPPY FAMILY", "EX LIBRIS: THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY", "BEATRIZ AT DINNER", "THE HERO (Haley)", "THE NEWSPAPERMAN: THE LIFE AND TIME OF BEN BRADLEE", "BURNING SANDS", "HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY", "SUPER DARK TIMES", "MISS KIET'S CHILDREN", and "THE FARTHEST"! Whew!


I know, I'm behind, and I'm struggling more and more to catch up. With my current stretch of limited internet, I wasn't able to get this done for three weeks after I started it, and I watched a lot of movies during this time. Just the ones I'm reviewing are only a fraction, and even then, I couldn't get around to reviewing everything I wanted to. I had to finally give up on reviewing the documentary, "Dolores" after computer saving issues just lost it too many times and I had to just throw in the towel on that one. It's a good and important movie and you should definitely seek it out. 

I'm hoping things will turn around sooner than later, but I'm honestly not certain. I'm gonna keep at it though, I've got some thoughts and blogs on several issues either in the works or on hold for me to get to after I finish, but I gotta get some movie reviews down. So, here we got, the biggest movie review post I've done yet, unintentionally so, but here we go. 


WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? (2019) Director: Astra Taylor

★★★

Image result for What is Democracy? film

The first film I've seen of 2019; I always look forward to these, mainly because I'm usually the last person to get to the modern year in film. In fact, I'm so far behind these days, I'm still trying to catch up to 2017 in my mind anyway. (Nobody seems to have a copy of "Foxtrot" for some reason, and it's really annoying.) This year, the first film is the documentary "What Is Democracy", a democracy that asks the question, about whether or not the Democracy of today truly is, by the people and for the people. as it ever was. 

No. The answer is no. 

Well, that was a short movie. Let's move on-...

(Fifteen minutes later)

Okay, I'm told, I have to elaborate more. It also asks the question in the title, "What Is Democracy?" Well, let me get a dictionary and let's see...- There's several definitions, let's go with the top-, (Sigh) alright, let's not. 

The reason I'm avoiding so much is that this film made me depressed. Not that I didn’t know everything in it already, but “What to Democracy?”, where to begin? Well, it does get that answer right of "Where is Democracy", Ancient Greece. Plato’s “The New Republic” and the early beginnings of the first democracy. Those piece were actually quite fascinating. The movie's semi-conceit is basically that it's tracing the history and origins of Democracy from it's original idea, the first uses in practice and now to it's modern-day usage, or perversion thereof. 

I- I think who knows even the simplest history of the concept of democracy thinks it's being adequately practiced as intended, even in the modern Republic form that most international government, including the United States has in some way adapted. Now, the movie itself, is not bad. I'm even recommending it. It's a mosaic, it doesn't answer this simple-yet-complex question, it tries to comprehend the many different ways and meaning the word's had over the centuries, and there have been. The best parts of the movie are when she's showing us that. The ruins of Greece, some amazing murals and painting in Italy that show how all the people were depicted by the ruling class, etc. etc. The movie also dives into modern issues throughout the world and there's some more-than-qualified talking head scholars who I would probably more enjoy listening to in a classroom setting. I like the contrast to being in Greece, showing the cradle of Civilization and the actual pillars of that civilization was governed, and then to just across the Sea, the Syrian refugee crises coming aboard. 

Basically, in some variant, you can explain Democracy as this old joke from Aristophanes's "The Assemblywoman", where one character talks about making everything free to all, the land, the property, no rich, no poor, just a Utopian paradise, and another character asks who will till the soil, and the guy then goes, "The Slaves." That's basically Democracy to one degree or another. Not necessarily the slave part, but definitely the world of the haves separated by the have nots. Exploring that is interesting, but I think a movie is just too small, at least the way Director Astra Taylor is doing it. I'm actually a bit surprised how well-acclaimed the film is; I mean I didn't hate it outright, but I can see people really being dismissive of this by concept alone. I'm actually kinda annoyed at it myself. It's an interesting question to ponder and look up, but I think she lost the narrative a bit. I don't need the history lesson on why it's screwed up, we need to know what's wrong with it and how to change it to make it better. Yeah, there's plenty of docs that give us that too, but I think I prefer that. 


GREEN BOOK (2018) Director: Peter Farrelly

★★

Image result for Green Book


Well, here it is, the film I’ve been hearing about. By far, the most controversial Oscar-winning Best Picture since “Crash”, which coincidentally was also a movie about racism. (Shrugs) I think “Crash” was and still is a pretty great film. It’s not perfect, and I wouldn’t have voted for it either, but it was in my Top Ten that year. I’ve seen it lately it still holds up, and I don’t really get most of the criticisms of it. The big one I hear is how it’s so liberal and heavy-handed with the messaging, but I don’t see that. In fact, if anything, I think it’s incredibly nuanced. It’s a little simplistic admittedly, because it’s writer/director Paul Haggis, was trying to do understand racism, which is a folly’s journey, ‘cause racism isn’t logical, but I can’t claim that that’s the worst idea either, and I can't fault someone for trying to understand it. If anything that movie shows that racism is a complex issue and that it effects all of us in some way, whether we want it to or not, and that is a universal truth. So, it’s a bunch of examples of that; how else would one show it? At least they’re good examples. (Also, Haggis was still in the throws of Scientology at the time, and there’s that undercurrent of naivete that’s involved that film as well, that actually is a much bigger detriment to the film's quality to be honest, 'cause that's where I think it ultimately does fail and that really should be discussed and analyzed more with “Crash,” but that’s for another day.) 

The majority of the backlash to “Crash” came after it won, “Green Book”’s backlash was long before it even got the nomination. In fact, I don’t think I predicted it to get nominated it was so severe, much more so than the previous year’s troubling film with pro-racism undertones, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, and like that movie, the one thing everybody agreed on were the greatness of the performances even if the messages were conflicted at best. “Green Book” does have it’s strong defenders though. One of my FB friends is Sasha Stone of AwardsDaily.com and she’s very much in the movie’s camp. I respect her opinion quite a bit, as well as a few others who also like the movie.


(Sigh)

Look, I’m just gonna be blunt here, this was a tough movie to sit through. I really struggled with this one. Part of it, is expected, the movie is about race relations in the South in the early Sixties, I mean, yeah, this shit happened and probably quite a bit, and frankly it’s relevant now, as every other week there’s some new racist idiot video taping themselves trying to kid an African-American family out of a pool, or whatever the hell racist assholes are doing now. Also, I don’t necessarily think the premise of the movie is bad at all. There’s some who complain that the movie isn’t from Don Shirley’s (Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali) perspective and that’s a valid point, but I don’t necessarily think that it’s in turn a negative that the movie’s instead from Tony “Lip” Vallelonga’s (Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen) point of view either. I mean, is it bad that a white man’s perspective changes, especially if it’s a bad perspective to begin with and needs to be changed?

(Sigh)


I mean, I wish it was more earned and I can feel my eyes rolling as I write this. Still, the problem isn’t the subject matter, it’s a good story that I can see an argument for being told. The problem isn’t that the perspective isn’t the greatest it could’ve been; it could still be a good movie that’s both, from the perspective of a white protagonist while still being about the troubles, trials and tribulations of racism in the South, look at “In the Heat of the Night”, that movie pulls it off incredibly well and I don’t hear too many people complaining about that film these day. Does, “Green Book” pull that off?

No, it doesn’t. It-, it just doesn’t. There are clearly many issues with the execution but, I’m putting Peter Farrelly’s feet to the fire fist. Farrelly is a comedy director, him and his brother, and they’re good ones. They haven’t been lately admittedly, but if anybody’s ever watched a PBA event recently, you’ll know that “Kingpin” is the most influential sports movie ever made. (Seriously, bowling on TV has just-, what the hell?!) That’s probably their most underrated and greatest work, and of course, “There’s Something About Mary”, is a classic, but I want to think a bit about their other great comedy “Shallow Hal” It's probably much more problematic than I remember, but it actually about a white man over-coming his prejudice, in this case,-, mostly fat and unattractive people. It’s premise, however, involves its main character getting hypnotized into only seeing peoples’ appearance based on the quality of the person they are, so Jack Black sees Gwyneth Paltrow in his love interest instead of the overweight girl who breaks chairs when she sits on them. It’s a funny movie and there’s actually quite a few good layers to it, that said, yeah, he only sees the reality in people, once he’s hypnotized to not see his preconceptions.  It works for that genre, although now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t remember any African-Americans in that movie, or for that matter, most of their movies, like, at all, including “Shallow Hal”. Hell, the aforementioned “Kingpin”, half of that movie, as great as it is, is just making fun of the Amish. He’s got a comedic sensibility, and that’s good for a break in the action, but trying to shift that into a narrative about race relations?

(Sigh) 


Alright, I’ve been bouncing around it, but the fried chicken scenes just pissed me the hell off. Like, I can see the genesis of the idea and why they might think it was a decent idea, and the timing is right with the rise of KFC as it became a National brand and you know the history of the recipes and how it’s changed from it’s early days,- I know way more about the history of “Kentucky Fried Chicken” than I really should, but I can just see the scene being pitched and Farrelly going to it’s natural conclusion, and I guess it’s funny in that little box, but then, when Dr. Shirley’s an invited dinner guest for a rich white family who’s holding his concert, they then specially make fried chicken for Dr. Shirley ‘cause it’s the only thing they believe African-Americans eat, it just doesn’t play well. The whole thing is a set-up to show how racist it actually is, and it’s a play on how-supposedly- everybody-likes-fried chicken-joke. Well, my mother hates fried chicken, so that’s not true either.

There are some good scenes here of course. I like the scene where they call a lawyer to get them out of jail after an altercation with police. Both of these men are interesting characters and I don’t think that we’re supposed to naturally think that just because Tony Lip had this great road adventure with Don Shirley in the South that suddenly he’s all cured of his own bigoted tendencies, although they do mention at the end that they remained friends until their passings a few years ago and I’ve heard some vary reports that disagree with that description of their relationship.

Still, it reads badly. It’s a culture clash that frankly doesn’t put any culture in the best of lights. I’ve heard that this film’s been compared to another Oscar-winning Best Picture that they have a lot in common with, “Driving Miss Daisy”; I actually watched "Driving Miss Daisy recently, I'm not gonna pretend there's not problematic elements to that film either but that's actually a movie about a complex friendship that builds over decades, and there's still loads of tenuous nuances involved in it. I wouldn't even call it a road trip movie, there's much more going on and while I don't necessarily think that it should've won the Oscar either, I can see why it did; it's not a movie about racism being "ended" because of a friendship, it's a movie about a friendship that grows and evolves in spite of apparent racism and despite some of the clear biases of the characters and the social injustices built into our sociological world.  However, to go back to “Crash” for a second, while I think “Crash” is trying to understand a real problem, I don’t get the sense that “Green Book” is trying to learn or understand anything, if anything, it seems a bit smug. 

Admittedly, part of that might be the disturbing way that Peter Farrelly put up one finger to the camera at the Oscars after winning the Screenplay Oscar, almost like he knew they were going to win; there’s an arrogance over “Green Book”, that’s undeserved that “Crash” doesn’t have. And to compare it to “Three Billboards…”, as well, that movie was made by a Brit who was playing with motifs and tools from an outdated genre, and that’s why that films insinuations are somewhat more forgivable, even if their implications are really troubling. Farrelly should know better, but this isn’t his natural genre. There’s nothing with going outside that either, Blake Edwards made “Days of Wine and Roses” for Christ’s sake, it’s not impossible for a comedic mind to shift his attention to more serious subjects and make a great movie out of them, but I don’t think he did turn off his comedic mind the way I believe he thinks he did, or if him and the creators of the movie think that’s what they did, then they probably have more problems identifying the real problems with themselves, (And that does seem to be the case as it seems like all the white male filmmakers behind this project have had to back out of this, in some cases, incredibly stupid statements over the recent year) this story and society at large, and I’m not sure how he knew so certainly he was going win more than one Oscar that night but yes, this film’s Oscar definitely deserves the derision that it’s gotten.

It’s not the worst movie of all-time or anything, and I can’t entirely put my finger on it, but this movie feels like it was made in bad faith. Even the parts that are good and show that there is something here…. I mean, it’s got details that are interesting, and I do like the idea of a major African-American performer traveling and performing into the South with a white driver he’s hired as protection, who’s got to travel through the Green Book, the underground travel guide for traveling in the South for African-Americans. I mean, there’s definitely something there, I can think of several details about African-American performers and the travails of traveling they endured and the performances are strong enough, but the executive of the story is not worth it. I was tempted to recommend it even despite all this, but what would I be recommending here, a half-ass version of the same problematic movie that we’ve all seen several better versions of for the last thirty years? Admittedly, I can think of some worst versions as well that did better than they should’ve at the Oscars, but still,....

Also Italian aren’t that damn obsessed with food! And seriously, I hope that was Farrelly's addition as well 'cause,  since it was Vallelonga's relative that co-wrote the screenplay, I hope that that wasn't one of the only major details you remember about him.


ROMA (2018) Director: Alfonso Cuaron

★★★★★




The first thing I should note about “Roma” is that, despite the movie being famously distributed by Netflix ‘causing a lot of disruption among the Oscar purists crowd, “Roma” is the quintessential example of a movie that should absolutely be seen on a big screen in a movie theater if possible. I do not fault Director Alfonso Cuaron for choosing the alternate primary method of streaming though, he claims that foreign language films aren’t often given proper distribution in America and he believed that the film would reach a greater audience streaming on Netflix after an appropriate Academy-eligible theatrical run. Frankly he’s right about that, the fact that the Academy recently decided to change its Foreign Language Feature category into an International Feature category, essentially is a concession to that fact, even though no other rules or distinctions regarding that category are being changed or altered, but whatever you think about streaming’s role or place, or whether it should have been eligible within the guidelines of the Academy, “Roma” is theatrical motion picture. It was not made to be enjoyed on either the literal small screen of television, or the potentially smallest of screen that we may watch streaming material on. (Or in my case, the corner of those screens as I’m usually doing ten other things at the same time…) It needs the big screen for he big emotions that it expresses.

Now, does that make it this great masterpiece of a film? Umm, well, I don’t really know to be honest. Not yet anyway. To be honest, I feel somewhat torn on this one. The movie is personal for Cuaron, it’s based on memories of his own childhood. The title “Roma”, refers to the area of Mexico City where he grew up and the movie is taking place, although I could see how Fellini might be considered an influence here. The movie, very thoughtfully is not through a children’s perspective though; it’s instead through the eyes of a familial maid, Clio (Oscar-nominee Yalitza Aparicio, in her first role.) is a young, Mixteco Mesoamerican, which is the indigenous peoples of Mexico, in her case she's her group is from Oaxaca and while she speaks Spanish fluently, she slips into her native Mixtec dialect as well.  She watches over a family of three kids, a constantly-shitting dog, and a matriarch, Sofia (Oscar-nominee Marina de Tavira). The film takes during a tumultuous era in recent Mexican history, the early ‘70s. The movie at various off-kilter times does a good job of showing some of the tumultuousness during that time, most notably the student demonstrations that often became violent.  He could’ve made a movie being at the center of the action, but that’s never actually been his modus operandi anyway. His last Spanish-language Mexican film, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” often drifted into side stories and narratives about its characters. He does similar but different things here, where we mostly get this one main story about this family and these characters, but there’s a larger world going on, and the long takes, and often from a master view that often move and drift in away, it helps us to consider the others people in the film, and what possibilities of there lives are. Only one story in “The Naked City” as they used to say.

I don’t think that movie an influence of “Roma” though, but I can think of some that are. There’s a lot of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” here, especially how with Sofi’s struggle with her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), who’s absent because of a supposed “business trip” to Quebec. We get pieces and snatches of info from the corner of the screen, through Clio’s fragmented view. While Sofi struggles with trying to keep a family together, Clio ends up pregnant after losing her virginity to Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) a young angry martial artist who has no interest in her or having a kid. We’re introduced to him swimming around a shower rod like it’s a weapon, naked. She ends up seeing him apart of the Corpus Christi attack on student demonstrators, he’s one of the ones, not just attacking the students, but running after a particular one but chasing him into a building along with other angry young men.

It’s after this incident that the family, including Clio heads off to the Beach for a weekend at Sofi’s insistent and there’s one of Cuaron’s just mind-bogglingly amazing long takes where everything comes crashing onto Clio and the family at once, emotionally and literally. I don’t know how he got this tracking shot but it is amazing that he did. (And I mean him, while Emmanuel Lubezki did prepare some shots, Cuaron served as the film’s cinematographer as well as director in this case, winning Oscars for both, the first to do that for the same movie.)  The movie begins with water crashing onto the land, as buckets are poured on the floor that Clio is mopping and he returns to that motif here. Cleansing, rebirth, life. Life being lived on the ground, as well as in the air; airplanes perpetuate the movie as well. There’s a mention at the end of the movie, after it’s finally announced to the family that the father is leaving them for his mistress that they can’t go to Disneyland, but that they might be able to go Clio’s home village for a vacation soon, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of another scene from “Y Tu Mama Tambien” where, on the road trip, they pass a village that one of the characters reflects is where an old beloved nanny of his said she was from. It’s kinda perverse when you think about it however, going to your Maid’s hometown for vacation like it’s just a destination, especially from a more upper class and lighter-skinner, probably European-blooded family, but the planes also could represent them trying to find a way out of their circumstances as well, as better as it may be comparatively. Cuaron is a Mexican man who found his way out to America.

Still though, the movie that I actually was reminded most by with “Roma” was actually Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror”, another autobiographical film about the memory of its director. I’m in the minority on that film, considering it one of Tarkovsky’s weaker films, but my criticism of that movie is that it’s so personal that only Tarkovsky himself, can actually relate to it. I don’t get that sense with “Roma”. It’s definitely personal, but it’s smart that it's not from his point of view. It could’ve been, he wouldn’t have been the first director to tell his story as a young man observing the adult world with confusion and wonder, and Cuaron’s made children’s films before, and good ones at that. Instead, he pays tribute to his beloved maid, one that’s still alive and he considers and is treated as being apart of his family. Perhaps it’s that he’s all-too consciously aware that his background isn’t one of struggle that allows him to empathize, or maybe he just wanted to tell her story. Her story, as it relates to his story, his family’s story, and all of Mexico’s story? Or perhaps just the neighborhood of Mexico City that he grew up in. Cuaron’s very best films always have a strong sense of his characters being small parts of a greater wider world out there. Look at “Children of Men”, a sci-fi film about a dying species struggling to save it’s maybe one last potential shot at survival, or “Gravity”, about an astronaut drifting in Outer Fucking Space, trying to just somehow survive, make it back to her home of Earth. 

Or to go to back to “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, those two teenage kids and one older adult, and well follow their sexual and other escapades in the foreground, while the movies sprinkles the images and stories of an everchanging Mexico all around them. This innate ability of Cuaron’s to paint a larger world, around his smaller detail is what makes him one of the best storytellers in Hollywood right now. In Hollywood, and in Mexico City.


BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018) Director: Bryan Singer


★★★


Image result for Bohemian Rhapsody movie

Since I’m not entirely certain I’m ever gonna get the chance to ask this again, before I get to this film, can I ask a question about Bryan Singer? I mean, I’ve heard the rumors and the reports for years about the erratic behavior, and the sexual escapades vacations with underage boys, and all the other raucous and craziness and innuendo that’s surrounded him for years; it finally started to get toxic enough that it was noticeable won anything during Awards season, his name seemed to always be omitted during everybody’s acceptance speeches; (This is probably one of the rare times a Best Picture Oscar nominee was ecstatic that it’s director wasn’t nominated with the film.) and there’s several discussions about that, but can I ask something else for a change, about him? Has Bryan Singer, ever actually been a great director?

He’s a big name-, a major Hollywood director by any standard, and somebody who up until recently to get away with a lot of bullshit antics, and yet, here’s the thing, like, how many great movies does he have? Honestly, the only one that immediately jumps to mind is “The Usual Suspects,” and I think that one’s debatable to begin with but even if you concede that one, that was what? 20+ years ago? And it’s not like he’s Terence Malick, he’s been making movies most of that time, and yet,- what else has he done? "Apt Pupil" I guess, does anybody remember that one; I never hear it brought up.  A few decent “X-Men” movies, and not even the best ones? I’m not saying he’s untalented by any means; I won’t go that far, but for somebody who’s name was once on the side of a building at goddamn USC Film School, the film school that hands-down has produced the most Oscar winners, how exactly did we let this guy slip through the cracks for so long? I’m not gonna say that X being X-amount of talented means that X can get away with this much crap is a good system or even a system that should be accepted by the community, ‘cause I don’t think that’s right to begin with; but at least most of the other #MeToo assholes and others that we’ve ostracized from the greater Hollywood community, were far more talented that Singer has been, at least on paper on anyway. I will say that Singer has long been an underachiever in Hollywood, and I do think he is capable of more, but I know I’ve been waiting a good long while to be truly impressed by him again.  

That leads us to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, his magnum opus sort-to-speak, or he had absolutely nothing to do with it. So, for a while there, I was obsessed with some Youtube reaction videos out there where people would react to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, usually/purportedly for the first time. At a certain point it became a big trend that everybody did and started mocking and eventually it was clear that people were faking their reactions, but you can still search and find most of the people who actually were genuinely reacting to their first listen. I slowly realized that this was a build-up to this movie, but I didn’t put two and two together for awhile, I just like the idea of no matter how utterly ridiculous the concept was to me that people were discovering this song for the first time in their teens and twenties that at least they’re seeing them for the first time. I doubt very much that they all were just now discovering Queen; they have way too many hit songs, but they probably didn’t know their name. I certainly remember “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You”, long before I actually knew who the band was behind them, and that was thirty years ago, and if anything Queen is actually an even bigger band then they were back then. Queen were always huge, at some point I think they sorta took over third place in the “Greatest British Bands of All-Time” list, behind the Beatles and the Stones, who are untouchable, and suddenly for some reason, Led Zeppelin stopped being cool. I guess that makes sense, I certainly don’t hear Queen’s influence musically much over the music landscape, but in terms of the culture of eccentricity and outlandish behaviors that are out there, as well as just a general appreciation for a ridiculously talented singing, I can certainly see Freddy Mercury’s (Oscar-winner Rami Malek) influence everywhere in music.

There’s a lot about the movie that’s been discussed an analyzed and I’m trying to digest a lot of it while I’m watching it. One of the aspects is infamously the editing. The movie simultaneously won the Oscar for Best Editing and yet has been heavily criticized, and even John Ottman, the editor himself has said that some scenes he wishes he had edited better. I’m in agreement. There’s a lot of strange in this movie, I’m not sure how much is Ottman’s fault though but there is a weird lack of pace and structure to this film’s editing. Let me compare to a film that has a similar editing style that I like, “Moneyball”. Now story-wise, “Moneyball” is kinda lacking actually, it’s-, well, it’s literal inside baseball and the script was a mangling of two screenplays from two very different but talented writers, but what brings the film together is the editing. And they used every editing trick in the book for that film, and I’m actually amazed it comes out as well as it does because of it. Often using charts and graphics and quick-cutting and, literally every sort of device to extend time and keep up a continuous narrative. Here, there’s a lot of scenes where we get a lot of shorthand word graphics. Literal old critic write-ups that look like what they hoped the critics would say so that they could put them in a commercial trailer for this film, lots of outbursts of large cities to represent their touring, the words “MADISON SQUARE GARDEN”, popping up upon itself three different times, each larger than the last to let us know, “Big Deal”? I mean, he could’ve shown a picture of Madison Square Garden, and the point would've been made, but more than that, it’s not really that important in terms of, anything regarding the band. The way it plays out, it feels like he’s just saying, “Now, we went here, and now this place loves us!” This might work in other contexts, like how it worked in “Moneyball”, but it doesn’t here.

So that’s questionable issue one. The editing, but perhaps that’s not all Ottman’s fault, it could be shotty directing and writing. Well, shotty directing. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is questionable despite a couple good writers working on it, but I suspect that they might’ve been hamstrung from Singer. Now, I happen to know the history of Queen fairly well, and there’s some good stuff here. There’s enough stories throughout Freddy’s life in particular that they could’ve made a couple movies about them, the second half of the movie is where I think the strength of the Queen's narrative comes in. As much as we, I and Singer, love to focus on the ‘70s of Queen when indeed they were the biggest rock band in the world for awhile there; (I’m surprised they left out one fascinating stat that at one point Queen had their first four albums breaks the Top 20 at the same time at the height of “A Night at the Opera”) but ‘80s Queen is actually much more narratively interesting. The band’s on a temporary hiatus, each of them doing some solo projects and Freddy is particular was alone, having been divorced from his wife Mary (Lucy Boynton) who was moving on with her life and Freddy deep into his solo album/Munich phase where he got excessively caught up in the gay scene. The timeline’s a bit off here ‘cause they showhorn the movie around Queen’s Live Aid performance, which-, I mean yes, it’s considered one of their highlight and great performances but it’s not exactly what I would’ve centered their career as a band around, but it’s not terrible, however Freddy feeling the early effects of AIDS; I’m fairly certain that that didn’t happen until after that performance, but I’m willing to suspend that disbelief for the narrative here. It actually works, everyone’s gone on without him, he’s alone, even John (Aiden Gillen) the lover who’s most betrayed him is finally out of the picture and now Freddy’s trying to regain his band and place as his life is ending. Even trying to enjoy life with a new partner, Jim (Aaron McCusker) That’s a great story, and it’s done well enough here. In fact, that should’ve been the whole movie.

I guess the background stuff is helpful, but it’s not all necessary, and some of it was just rough to watch. There’s some bands where I think that could work for their narrative to an extent, I thought “The Runaways” for instance, pulled that off well. Actually the structure of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, is actually kinda corny. Like, major historical or noteworthy moments and successes, sped through, that’s Act I, Act II is the good stuff with Freddy in the ‘80s, the disillusion and rebirth of the band, but then, it ends, with, a concert. A recreation of a concert. Eh…, Okay. That’s feels more like a Busby Berkeley-like musical feature structure to me, but at least in those movies, the whole movie is built around the performance, Queen is rock band, they’ve been performing the whole time. It’s a memorable, noteworthy, and dare I say, important concert, but still, mostly it’s importance is that it was televised and preserved. It’s oddly structured, although the song the movie’s named after could also be claimed to have a similar structure.

This is a tough one for me. I guess I like it, there’s certainly enough good to say, watch it. I guess they’re giving us what we want, one last Queen concert, and not with Adam Lambert. (Although I’d actually be okay with that; I like Adam Lambert, although I have a friend who hates him and especially hates him as Queen's lead singer, but sorry Kaycee, I'm okay with it.)

The movie might suffer a bit from trying to shoehore in some of the other members of the band, they are important and their actors played them well enough and they were apart of the filmmaking and probably were trying to have them and Freddy look in the best light possible. I’m sure they care about accuracy to Freddy as well, and I think they did okay. I still kinda think there was a great deal of nonsense before we actually got to the interesting stuff that would make a Queen movie really compelling.

That said, I’m torn on Rami Malek’s performance. He doesn’t sing, which, in this case, I’m okay with; it's Freddy Mercury, nobody can sing like him anyway so I don’t mind the lipsyncing. And this is a tough role to play, Freddy was a complex and unique character, and one that I think makes it difficult to judge how well it’s performed. The dialogue isn’t terrific, so that doesn’t help him. I still kinda felt some of Malek’s choices were curious, especially in the beginning with all the facial and head movements; he always seems like he’s staring up into space or wants to in the beginning. (Sigh) I don’t know, I guess it’s okay and by the end of the movie, I had accepted him as Freddy. I’m not sure it’s a great performance, but it’s probably as good a performance of Freddy Mercury as I can imagine anybody having done. I just wish it was in a better, more consistent film.

This is a celebration of Queen, and they deserve to be celebrated, but I think their story could’ve been told better. I’ve heard a good theory that notes that “Bohemian Rhapsody” might be more about Bryan Singer then the band. I can't find that link right now, but I've heard theories about how the movie's about how he’s been all excessive and extravagant and how it’s basically a justification for his behavior over the years. It’s hard to not think of that theory during some scenes, admittedly. I guess in this theory Singer’s AIDS would be equivalent to him getting kicked out of making movies regularly because of #MeToo, but that’s stretching it.

There is a lot to make of “Bohemian Rhapsody”; I can see why it’s so split everybody. It’s splitting me; I think it’s a very inconsistent film, made by an overrated schmuck of a filmmaker, but there is good here. That overrated schmuck is talented enough to know what we want and he’s occasionally good enough to make parts of the movie compelling and he can tell a good story when he wants to. I wonder if this is one of those movies that students in Film Criticism classes are gonna have to watch and then write a good and bad review of the film. I know, I’m fairly tempted to do that, if I haven’t already, there’s parts that we can single out here for each side. Does it all add up or mean something, or does nothing really matter?  I guess I’ll the let audience judge it, so recommend, barely.


VICE (2018) Director: Adam McKay


★★★★★



I think it’s indubitably fair to call Dick Cheney (Oscar nominee Christian Bale) the worst Vice President of all-time. There’s very little defense of him; many of my fellow Democrats actually put the majority of the George W. Bush’s Presidency failures directly onto Cheney, moreso than Bush who they suspect strongly was simply just too dumb to know better. I have a little difficulty letting Bush off the hook that easily, that feels like letting one war criminal off in order to convict another to me, but that said, I can’t say that perspective wasn’t earned. The last time I remember hearing anything from Cheney of significance was around 2009 or ’10, when him and Obama were giving dueling speeches about the future of the country on the same day; I don’t remember all the details but I remember once Obama blew his audience away and everybody forgot and dismissed Cheney’s laughable attempt at becoming a new face of the GOP that was fumbling around looking for its new leader, He was clearly out of his league, and combating Obama at his specialty of giving a speech was just mind-blowingly stupid, but more than that; Cheney is clearly best at operating, not out on stage and in public, but in those dark shadows behind the throne of power that he thrives in.

Chaney was a Yale dropout who had gone back home to Wyoming, where he stumbled around drinking and fighting between jobs for awhile before with his wife Lynne’s (Oscar-nominee Amy Adams) encouragement eventually fumbled his way into a DC internship for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), the then-Chief of Staff for Nixon. You know, I never thought much about this, but it is kinda irksome in the ways that the GOP seems to always be diving back into it’s old pool so much, Presidency after Presidency, the same people; I’m not gonna say Democrats don’t do that, but it does feel like they’re more interested in finding voices outside their own circle as often as possible. BTW, I can’t help but think about how perfect Carell nails Rumsfeld, all I could think while watching his performance is that he must’ve studied Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”, quite thoroughly.

Anyway, eventually, he manages to become Chief of Staff for Ford, the youngest to ever hold that position, and after his defeat in ’76, Cheney would become Wyoming’s Congressional Representative throughout the eighties, along with the help of his wife, who often campaigned for him after he’d get a period heart attack. She is portrayed as very Lady MacBeth-like here and she became fairly powerful in her own right during this time. The movie plays a little fakeout with us in the middle after Cheney left the Congress shortly after his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) came out to them, even going to a fake closing credits sequence before inevitably usurping into literal Shakespearean parody when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) calls and insists to be Vice President. It’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, which I want to point out because, this really isn’t a funny comedy. At least not now; it be funnier in the future when most of this isn’t still raw. It’s definitely a comedy; it has to be. We must laugh, or at least slant towards laughing so that we may not cry or break a hand or two while the nearest brick wall picks a fight with you. Director Adam McKay knows that comedy techniques are often the best use to explain the abstract as well as the best framing device to portray the indefensible; he used this effect masterfully in his masterpiece “The Big Short”, to explain the housing bubble and the loan default crises that lead to the The Great Recession in 2018.

What he details here is a perversion of the Constitution known as the Unitary Executive Theory that purportedly claims that the Presidency, and the Branch has total executive authority to do whatever it wants. Cheney would use this to essentially place his hands and mitts all over Washington, since the Article is actually even more vague about the powers of the Vice President. Like how, despite being President of the Senate, Cheney kept an office in the House of Representatives while V.P., as well as several others in the Pentagon and other locals. How he got the first look and override of the Daily Threat Matrix reports. He’s the one who leaked Valerie Plame’s name when her husband called out their bullshit. The no-Bid Halliburton contracts, which he was CEO of at the time, the secret meetings with the Oil Executives to divvy up Iraq before 9/11 ever happened. It’s always been the joke and theory that he was the shadow president under Bush, but it’s the facts that highly point to it. There’s a funny post-script of the movie where there’s complaints about the movie having a liberal bias by a focus group, one that ultimately cares more about the next “Fast and Furious” movie than John Yoo’s (Paul Yoo) torture memos, that are still apart of the Justice Department today. Or that Liz Cheney (Lisa Rabe) won her father’s old Congressional seat by coming out against gay marriage, which did inevitably split Mary from the family for the time being.  

Yes the movie has a liberal bias, but yes, it’s also based heavily on facts and events that are documented, that we know he did. The movie doesn’t claim to be 100% knowledgeable; it’s mysterious narrator Kurt (Jesse Plemons) explains several times how it’s impossible to know exactly what Cheney thought and when, and even the movie itself prefaces this with the best pre-credits notation scene since “(500) Days of Summer”. But it’s true. Perhaps these have always been Cheney’s beliefs, perhaps something shaped his view of the world and formed into this power-hungry monster? Maybe he just likes the power? We’ll probably never know what makes him tick and that’s the most annoying part of Cheney. He was everywhere and nowhere; coveting and bullying his way into power and rule that frankly, we can’t point to specifically in his past. Perhaps it’s just that he’s from Wyoming; I don’t know, and the movie doesn’t either.

I thought back a lot to all these times when Bush was in power; it’s timeline of war crimes and absurdity forever spotted into my head. Colin Powell’s (Tyler Perry) UN address, Richard Clarke, (Kevin J. Flood) getting railroaded after not defending the White House in some of there assessments. The movie actually lets Condoleeza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton) more off-the-hook than I would’ve imagined, in fact, anybody with brown skin or an ethnic name seems to be the ones the most out of the loop of everything else going on.

Christian Bale’s great in this movie, the whole cast is quite strong. McKay’s directing and writing is quite good here as well. If it fails compared to “The Big Short”, it’s only in the fact that that was such a high standard, as well the genre of storytelling being different. “The Big Short” was more of a mystery, so discovery and understanding were more critical with that film. “Vice” is mostly a biopic, so the appeal isn't as strong, despite the fact that in both films, we know what's going to happen, we're not being as pushed forward; that’s also unfortunately why the laughs are technically few and far between. McKay has always been a talented filmmaker and he’s figured something out with using this comedic-influenced approach to retell those confusing points of recent history that we often either forget too easily in this modern world of dis-and-misinformation, or that we simply can barely follow and understand, again, through the confusing that the modern media lens easily lends itself to.

I also thought about a lot of movies that have documented the era and Washington at that time. Most of them documentaries, Oliver Stone’s “W.” tripped into my mind once or twice, but the movie that I keep going back to oddly enough was “Zero Dark Thirty”. All the torture that he insisted on executing, the thing I love about “Zero…”, that made it clear to me just how incompetent this administration was was how the torture was used not as a means to get information, but supposedly as a deterrent. Which of course it wasn’t, but even worst than that, they weren’t properly investigating any of the information that they actually did receive. It becomes more and more clear how little capturing Osama Bin Laden meant to these people.

The movie ends with Cheney talking directly to us, in that light of that famous Martha Radditz (Amy Moorman) interview where it was utterly clear that he simply didn’t give much of a damn what the public thought of him. At least Bush sometimes seems reflective on his war crimes if not guilty or even conflicted, but Cheney, simply never gave a fuck. This is a guy who apparently wielded enough power that he could shoot somebody and have the victim apologize to him.

So, yeah, if Cheney don’t give much of a damn what we think about him, then I frankly don’t care much about whether the film has a liberal bias or not.


A STAR IS BORN (2018) Director: Bradley Cooper


★★★★1/2


Image result for A Star is Born

Okay, so I’ve been a bit of a bad cinephile here. As of today, I have unfortunately not seen any version of “A Star is Born”. Well,- I haven’t seen any version, in their entirety. I’ve seen part of the one with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the ‘70s a few times; I never seem to catch it from the beginning and-eh, I can recall some of the images of the movie, but I don’t really recall the story or anything. I mean, I know the basic story but-,….

(Sigh)

Alright, I’ll just be blunt here; I’ve been an idiot. For years I’ve had reasons for just never getting drawn to these movies, mostly because for whatever reason, I’ve never been a Streisand fan, or for that matter a Judy Garland fan. I’ve never had a strong opinion on Janet Gaynor one way or another, but those are the two names that have always been brought up and I’ve had viscerally negative reactions to both Garland and Streisand and you know, in hindsight, I don’t know why? I’ve not big on Streisand’s music still, but I usually I find myself liking her when I see her acting. I’m not crazy about her or anything, but she’s generally been pretty good in most of the things I’ve seen her in. And Garland, well, I have some issues with “Meet Me in St. Louis” still I guess, and I probably just watched “The Wizard of Oz” way too much as a kid and that left me jaded about her. Nowadays, I just feel sorry for her. I mean, I did hear that she was a bitch and that was way more trouble than she was often worth, but can you really blame her? I mean, I know Hollywood fucked up a lot of talented troubled young female actresses, especially during that so-called Golden Era, and I wouldn’t try to compare which ones probably got it the worst over those eras, but Garland’s gotta be up there, and she started a lot younger than say, Marilyn Monroe, who you can probably claim was naturally too self-indulgent and prone to destructive behavior to begin with, but at least it wasn’t Hollywood that fucked with her during her development years. And I know Barbra has the bitch label backstage too but, eh, you know, I suspect she has her reasons, and you know what, I’ve seen enough of her outside of that bubble where she doesn’t seem like the worst image of her that I’m now suspecting that a lot of that might’ve been overblown over the years.

So yeah, I really have no good defense or excuse on this one, other than to say, all three are on my Netflix queue, and I’ll get to them eventually. And you know, I should’ve definitely gotten to them sooner ‘cause I’ve been hearing rumors of another remake of “A Star is Born” for like, at least twenty years now. Back then, it was supposed to be Will Smith and Jada Pinkett in an all African-American cast remake, which would’ve probably been a decent idea, but for whatever reasons that and several other half-started attempts were aborted over the years until now. (And those are just the ones titled “A Star is Born”, directly referencing and putting themselves in the company with the other movies, but this story we’ve seen reimagined and retold several times over the years. Even recently; hell, I could argue “La La Land”, was basically a remake of “A Star is Born”.)

Which begets to me, the real question going into this latest incarnation, why did Bradley Cooper of all people decide to remake it now? He’s had a really intriguing career hasn’t he? He’s been around a lot longer than some realize, but he obviously broke through to the general populace with “The Hangover” a movie that I enjoyed but didn’t think was necessarily the great comedy everybody else seems to believe it was. So, I came at him skeptically at least as a big name movie star for a little while there, but for the most part, the guy’s just revealed himself to be more and more talented no matter what he’s doing. He’s had enough clout to almost always pick interesting roles on screen and stage (If you haven’t seen it, seek out a clip of him on Broadway in “The Elephant Man”, which he transformed into, amazingly, without any makeup) and work with the people he wants to, almost to the point where him and a couple seemed to formed a curious little troupe of actors who work with him, (Seriously, in was kinda unusual, you don’t normally see, acting troupes who work primarily in film much, at least not in mainstream Hollywood) and now he’s chosen this as his directorial debut, that he also stars in and co-wrote. It’s an ambitious and frankly curious choice. Like I said, this has been done three times now and there’s been several others that have been rumored for years in between that never got that far; but even still, there was no need or demand for another “A Star is Born”, so clearly something about this story made him damn determined to push this through.

Hmmm. Well,- let’s just say that without immediately looking deeper into it to be certain, I have a personal theory…. I won’t reveal it, ‘cause it’s wildly speculative, based mostly on rumor and innuendo and admittedly it’s a little bit too much adding together two and two and getting seven and then desperately trying to take an inkless pen and change that seven into a four in order to make it fit my thought,… but, w whatever the inspiration, whatever made him look onto this tale as old as entertainment itself, and determned that “Yes, I have something to say!” with this, he made a damn good movie.

Not a totally unique movie or anything. In fact, maybe I remember more of the Streisand one than I thought I did, because this movie has a lot of what I remember from the spare parts of that one that I think of with that film. Mainly, it’s a romance. A sexy, tragic romance between two artists. An older male artist, this time he’s a veteran country-rock singer Jackson Maine (Oscar-nominee Cooper) and a young talented struggling waitress named Ally (Oscar nominee Lady Gaga) who occasionally sings on the side, in this case, being the only female singer in a drag revue. He stumbled into the bar she performed at one night, and they hit it off, and clearly he sees her talent, and they fall in love. He’s inspired on his current tour by her and soon she starts getting her own record contract and publicity, represented here by Rez (Rafi Gavron) a record industry producer who’s going into molding her into a pop star. This makes Jackson jealous, but more than that, it leads him down further into drugs and alcohol.

So, I can’t fully compare her to Garland or Streisand, but I’ll say this, Gaga is perfect for this role, and I’m not at all surprised. Lady Gaga is the reason I started listening to modern pop music again. Seriously, I think I’ve talked about it before, how, as I grew up at the turn of the century how disillusion I got with any kind of modern music at that point, and somewhere around the beginnings of 2001, I just gave up and quit entirely. There’s exceptions to this of course, but generally I still kinda considered anything after 1999 to generally dismiss as crap, and that’s not just pop, that’s pretty much every genre at that time; even if I liked something I was so disillusioned by the CD prices and disappointed when I realize just how badly I overpaid for them once I did listen that I just stopped altogether, but eventually I finally heard Lady Gaga. You’d think it would’ve just bled into the background with how much her early work might sound or resemble some of those other more contrived artists that I was so frustrated with dominating the radio that it would’ve done the same, but I could tell the difference; I’m not gonna pretend I always get it right or wrong, but true talent will always present itself and become clear and Gaga definitely is that, and that was before I looked deeper into her background, which made it even more ridiculously clear. I still know some people who were genuinely shocked when she did that “The Sound of Music” montage at the Oscars a few years ago and were utterly blown away with her voice; I wasn’t shocked then, and I’m not shocked here that she’s this good. Yeah, it’s a role that’s ridiculously perfect for her, an artist who way more talented than the glitz pop image that’s thrust upon her, but still her acting is another revelation altogether. I knew she did some minor acting roles before this, most notably on a season of “American Horror Story”, but this film, if it does anything else, it’s a showcase to reveal everything that she can do and shows us insight into how she, and other musicians do it.

I didn’t know Bradley Cooper was a musician either and they both pull off the music well; the movie won an Oscar for the song “Shallow”, but this is a musical, and there’s quite a few good songs on this soundtrack. (Although yeah, “Shallow”, is the best of the bunch and totally deserved to win) We slowly dissect Jackson the most though. I tend to imagine Streisand being the focal point of her version of the movie, but I think you can argue that Jackson is here, or they're at least equals. We get a link to his past in Bobby (Oscar-nominee Sam Elliott) a much older brother to him who originally started as a band together before inevitably Jackson broke through and Bobby ended up more or less as his road manager. He warns Ally about the trouble ahead, but she’s an idiot who falls for the wrong guy, even though, yeah he’s not good for her. If “A Star is Born” or any variation is ever gonna work, then, despite whatever else, the thing that has to work is the romance between the two leads. What can I say, it works here. There is good supporting work here as well here as well, from Elliott and also Andrew Dice Clay of all people as Ally’s father. Boy there’s a career resurgence worth digging into more, and speaking of the random Mad Libs casting, I would say that, if the movie has issues, the big one for me would be how it sorta brings in and drops out the supporting roles a little too conveniently. There’s a great little role here played by Dave Chappelle at one point, he’s here for a nice minute or two, but then he’s out of the movie, and other than the fact that him and Jackson clearly know each other from the past, we don’t really know who the hell he is or why he pops up now. I’m glad he’s there, it’s always nice to see Chappelle, and he’s actually incredible in the little screen time he’s given, but it’s still kinda just odd and sudden. (It’s also kinda odd to note that Alec Baldwin had cameos in two Best Picture nominees this year, this and that couple minutes at the beginning of “BlackkKlansman”.)

I can’t adequately judge the movie compared to the other versions of “A Star is Born” entirely, but this seems like a good version to me; it’s got everything that I remember thinking that the story requires. Great art, music, a wonderful, sexy romance and some great acting and some strong main characters who we genuinely care about and want to stay together even if we know that it’s best that they inevitably end up apart. It’s a modern telling on a classic tale, perhaps that’s it’s biggest drawback, just how classic it actually is, but we know that’s what were getting going in, which I guess is why I focus on the why regarding Cooper so much. Let’s just say that I don’t believe you tell this story and make this movie again, unless there’s something very, very personal about it for you. I doubt we’ll ever completely know what that means so much, but that’s okay. That’s what art is for.


AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo

★1/2

Image result for avengers infinity war

“There’s-, there’s a lot about “The Lord of the Rings”, that I hate about it-, I’ve explained many of my reasons over the years about it, and I hate to continually go back to this example, but we screwed up as a society and it’s now so ingrained in the fantasy genre that I can never seem to fully get away from it, but there’s so much I hate about it that I never pinned down something else I hate about it ‘til now. Well, the rings. Seriously, they’re kinda-, look, I’m not anti-MaGuffin plot, but they’re not a good MaGuffin. It actually makes very little sense if you think about it for more than five minutes, that something can exist that’s so powerful that either it must be destroyed or it will destroy the world. It’s actually kinda perverse in that story in particular, Tolkien was trying to create and emulate a mythology, but the majority of it is based around the idea that the underlings of the world are at the behest or creation of the Gods, essentially, everybody’s fighting in “LOTR”, to become a God by claiming one of those rings, or to prevent from becoming gods themselves. Now, granted everybody fails at this at the end, partially because for some stupid reason this power of these rings is too powerful for people to have, which, honestly is another sticking point; I’ve never really bought into the equation of Great Power = Great Responsibility thing either, but yeah, like the middle of all these warring sides all clamoring for power, you don’t really need the rings for that to be a conflict, and instead that turns what could be a really powerful story ABOUT how the struggle and fight for power between those at the top hurts and involves everyone else, which is more in tune to many mythological stories, and makes it, well, a second-rate treasure hunt. I like treasure hunts, but not like that.

Anyway, my point being is that “LOTR” did this better, and the Infinity Gauntlet is an even stupider Maguffin. I mean, I get the idea of Thanos (Josh Brolin), the insane sociopathic powerful madman going from planet to planet and galaxy to galaxy and causing massive destruction and genocide all over the universe under some misguided belief that destroying the universe is the only way to preserve, protect and ultimately control it, but he can’t just be really powerful, everything has to be surrounding these stones? I know this has been set up for like a gazillion more movies than necessary, but that doesn’t make it any less dumb. You’re telling me a universe with space pirates, gods and a smorgasbord of superhuman beings and an insane amount of technology can’t just put up a fight against this menace and have that be compelling, without also having to add this metaphysical bullshit gauntlet crap? I’m fairly certain one of the early seasons of “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” did this better. I can’t remember if it was the Lord Zed or the Machine Empire season, but yeah, one of them had already taken over like seven or eight solar systems and the Milky way before the ruled the entire universe and now the Rangers were the only ones getting in the way? Where’s those teenagers with attitude when we fucking need them?

Alright, so, Thanos, he’s been the big guy behind a lot of the destruction and antics through many of these movies in the past. He seems to already be a pretty powerful godlike figure, but now he wants to gather these stones into this gauntlet made by a dwarf Eitri (Peter Dinklage) who apparently also made Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer. He’s collected a couple of these things already, and it’s six stones to rule them all, so he’s got four to go. He’s got an alien army to attack Earth, he’s taken out Asgard entirely, his home planet, Titan, which I think is actually a moon, but whatever,- anyway, he believes that, overpopulation is humanity’s biggest problem and he wants to end it.

(Sigh)

I’m gonna say he’s not entirely off-base with this; Thanos, Is a representation of,- let’s try to find a way without offending some cultures, well, the purge. The periodical purge that humans have gone through of peoples and civilizations over the millenniums of existence. This doesn’t have to necessarily representative of (INSERT GENOCIDIAL DICTATOR HERE) either, this could be diseases like the Plague or the Spanish Flu that wiped out as many people as wars did, or it could represent collateral damage from environmental changes that wipe out societies. His home planet it’s noted by Quill (Chris Pratt) is eight inches off it’s axis, that’s the kind of change that would be destructive to all of Earth if that were to happen, all with a snap of a finger. This is a good villain for the Avengers to combat, even if this whole thing basically amounts to his stupid goddamn glove.

The real problem is, the Avengers themselves. The more this movie goes on, the more it feels like that I’ve just spent the last decade or so being forced to pay attention and follow these characters has been nothing but a waste of time and energy, only for them to be sacrificed, literally, for plot and story convenience. Hey, remember Scarlet Witch and Vision (Elisabeth Olson and Paul Bettany) from that last “Avengers” movie that sucked? Well, they’re back, and suddenly important. Or, all that great majesty that came with Wakanda and our introduction into Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)’s whole secret world an universe, that’s a technological Atlantis that remained hidden in Africa for centuries, undisturbed from the progresses of Western influence, including any/all past/current African conflicts as well as all the excavation of the continent of its resources, including several mass enslavements and forced removal and deportation of it’s peoples? Well, it’s just a battlefield for this movie, forget all that depth and importance that that movie put into this universe.

Or how about, that one whole movie “Captain America: Civil War”, where all the superheroes fought each other and broke up into sections over stupid laws they were way too powerful to ever actually let them be enforced if they wanted to that lead to the permanent break-up and separation of the Avengers group, that’s all, even more completely pointless and relentlessly useless than I originally thought it was now? (Sigh) Why was I getting yelled at for putting that movie on my Dishonorable Mentions Worst List again? Not even on my Worst List, but the Special Mentions Worst List, I was getting yelled at for it, seriously. Now, I’m really wishing I had put it on that list. (Seriously, real talk, if they were all just gonna eventually get back together when a threat that required all of them were to come at the first beckon call, then why the fuck does that movie exist in this franchise to begin with? Here, get rid of the stupid law and the infighting, just say, “We’re greater than humans, superheroes known collectively as “The Avengers”. Sometimes, we’re together against a major foe, sometimes we’re separate from each other.” BANG! I just eliminated one stupid film from this franchise in two sentences or less, minimum, and saved about a billion dollars in production and advertising. If I could get everybody’s three hours of their life back for that damn thing, I’d be really happy. ([Probably more than that if I think about it.]) Hey, can’t they do that, ‘cause doesn’t Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) have some kind of time travel power or something? 

(Sigh)


I have to ask also, what is the point of creating any of these fantastical, amazing worlds if the only ultimate endgame requires them to either be destroyed or saved from destruction? Can’t there be something in between these extremes that’s just as compelling, or even moreso? I’m sure a lot of people came out of this movie feeling like they were kicked in the gut, I did too, but it wasn’t a satisfying climatic kick that crushes your guts, blows your mind, and breaks your heart; it’s the kind of kick that happens to you, when you’re already beyond the point of physical exhaustion, and suddenly, everything that you’ve spent your time working on that made you so excited, suddenly completely falls and shatters, like a long, elaborate computer project that you’ve been working on all day and night, and suddenly, your computer crashes and it’s not saved; all that wasted time and energy that you spent pouring out your sole, for what?

Look, I really don’t want to seem as bitter as I am, but these movies, this franchise, they’ve just annoyed the hell out of me over the years. Even when I like them, I just find myself pissed that this thing keeps on going. I feel I’m being forced to suffer through all the worst parts of superhero comics. Crossing over every universe so it takes place in one world, superheroes battling superheroes instead of the bad guys like they should be, having to sit through origin stories of every character in this damn thing, most of those movies that I usually like, only for them to be meaningless because they get impacted by these grand event comics that has nothing to do with the story they’re telling but this big story needs to supposedly involve every superhero from every universe, so everything’s put on hold, or outright ended…! (Annoyed grunt)

To go back to “Power Rangers” for a second, and I don’t know why I’m suddenly interested in them so much, I was never the biggest fan of them either, but you know why they work as a multi-superhero universe? Cause they were always a team. There was a bad guy, so those five or six, or however many in one year there were during their whatever seasons, they were teamed up to destroy evil together. Okay, it doesn’t work perfectly there, cause of a bunch of dumb crossover with teams and whatnot, but still, for the most part, the idea is that in this universe where superheroes exist, the villains are too great for there only to be one superhuman to protect them, hell it’s a major aspect that’s built into the mythology of both the American and Japanese versions of that series. It’s not a requirement for a multi-superhero universe to do this, “Watchmen”, somehow gets away with it by creating it’s own unique full universe to explain it, and I’m not the biggest “X-Men” fan, but at least symbolically within the text there’s reasons for mutants to co-exist in the same world as men. But in “Avengers”? Superheroes all seem to co-exist in this world because somebody wants this world that’s just full of superheroes, and that’s never sat well with me. It’s sorta the same questioning I have with “Game of Thrones” as to why, if the history of the narrative is pretty heavily influenced by the actual Wars of the Roses, then why create a fantasy world to tell this story at all, but even with that example, I get why you would do that, especially if you’re creating a world from scratch. The avengers are established characters in their own worlds most of them, on their own heroic adventures and journeys and going through their own experiences, they’re not brought together because there’s a powerful outside force out to destroy the world, there’s always a powerful outside force that’s out to destroy the world. Just because it’s fun to imagine a bunch of our favorite superheroes and characters coming together, doesn’t mean it’s good narratively. I mean, it certainly could be if done well, but these aren’t done for the purpose of telling a great story, they’re done because, the people, the fans want to see it.

(Sigh) 


Look, it’s not simply that I’m not a superhero guy and I instead want Hollywood to start making movies of franchises, characters and plots that I’m more drawn to, I don’t; it’s that I know for a fact that just because you think you want something doesn’t mean that once you actually get it, that it’s gonna be good, or for that matter, exactly what you wanted or how you wanted it. If you’re just kowtowing to what the majority wants, you’re still not going into their head and make everybody happy; sometimes what we think we want is not actually what we want and sometimes we don’t know what we want until we see it. I once a told a friend something to the effect of, “You think anybody was clamoring for a story about a millionaire who goes on vigilante streaks at night dressed like a bird until they actually saw it?” No, of course not, of course they didn’t. It was somebody's artistic vision that was people saw and liked after it was in someone’s mind. Comic books are a real example of this effect, one of the best ones in fact but this is what happens when they’re not treated as such and are instead treated as our own creations to do with and manipulate as we please.

“The Avengers” movies, all the ones with the title “Avengers” in the beginning of them, they’ve all been terrible. This one’s the worst yet; (Ugh, and I know I have another to go at some point.) it’s the one I’ve been fearing would happen. It’s absolute proof to me that the notion that combining these worlds and universes together into an epic storytelling experience, doesn’t make it greater, grander or for that matter, even any good at all. If anything, this might be the worst of the bunch because of how it makes everything else before it worst, by showing how manipulative and little they actually were, pawns on a chessboard, easily taken out at will. This was planned for years, why I was made to care? Thanos might be destroying in order to create and ultimately rebuild (Granted, that’s giving him credit to think that far ahead) but the MCU I now recognize is just a bunch of creating, in or to destroy. I don’t know which is worst, but to me, it’s bad either way. Perhaps if I had a stronger connection to these movies, I’d be more emotionally elegiac, but I don’t think so. 

Comic books, for all intensive purposes, are fairly cheap to make, and these stories work better in that media because of it, because many people who do love comics can afford to dive into these several pieces of media that they can read relatively quickly, and it doesn’t require a giant, grand effort to write, draw, color, and publish them, especially if they’re coordinated under an all-around vision at a publishing house like Marvel, and those creators are given as much time as possible to create as complex a narrative and universe as they possibly can, literally, anything they can possibly draw with pencil and paper, as much of as little as they need, but these are movies. They take longer to make, and even if these were all made as cheaply as possibly, which they’re not, they’d still be more of an undertaking than any comic books or scenes that they’re depicting. It can take just a handful or two of people to create a comic book, it take thousands of people to make these movies, each one of them and the time, money and man hours involved in such an undertaking is overwhelming, and that’s wasted with a film like this, that makes this film feel like a waste of time but makes all those other movies and all that was put into them feel like a bigger waste of literal time and energy that’s been building up for years, then yeah, in that case, I’m not just pissed at them based on concept or their overreach into Hollywood and pop culture, I’m just pissed off at them now, period….

(Deep breath)

And there’s still a movies to go
And superhero movies to go before I sleep
And superhero movies to go before I sleep….  



SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) Director: Ron Howard


★★★


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Okay, so this is the movie that tells the story about what happened before Han Solo (Aiden Ehrenheich) shot second? (Blows raspberries) Alright. I’m honestly not that sure what to make of these “Star Wars” prequels. I mean, these new prequels.

Come to think of it, for all the admonishment that the original “Star Wars” prequels gets to this day, why does everybody keep thinking it’s a good idea to have prequels? They’re the one’s that started this trend and they supposedly suck? (I mean, I’ve only seen the first two and didn’t think “…The Phantom Menace” was that bad. Seriously, “Attack of the Clones” is a legit bad movie that should be admonished but “…The Phantom Menace” is fine; stop bellyaching…) 

Anyway, I guess these are the side-story movies; I remember not caring about the last one-“Rogue One…,”, but I guess I am little excited seeing Lawrence Kasdan listed as a co-writer along with one of his sons. He’s the one that wrote “The Empire Strikes Back”, which is the best “Star Wars” movie and you know what, I like Ron Howard as a director. For all the shit he gets, he’s a damn good storyteller and for all we know Kathleen Kennedy was completely in the right firing Lord & Miller. Yeah, I said it, you don’t know for sure! Just because they did one or two things you liked in the past doesn’t mean that they were going to do this well.

That said, I think I’m getting tired of expanding “Star Wars” the way we keep doing it with these films. I couldn’t completely explain why, ‘cause this isn’t a terrible movie; it’s not bad at all; in fact I would probably like it more if it simply didn’t take place in the “Star Wars” universe. Not just because, I’m not in need of more tales of Chewbacca (Joonas Suamo) and Lando Carlissian (Donald Glover) and whatnot, but also,- I’m starting to realize that I don’t really like the expanded universe of “Star Wars”. Seriously, is there any place in this universe that seems like a cool place I’d want to live at? I mean, I get it, it’s the Empire, but- (Sigh) how far away and how long ago were these wars going, ‘cause they feel like they’ve been going on forever, there’s no end in sight, and I just kinda wanna go back to Earth. When is Earth in this Universe, anyway? I mean, if we’re still just carbon atoms, then yeah, okay, I’ll keep busing along with this, but if we’re like in the middle of the Renaissance during this whole thing, then just drop me off. Everything’s a desolate desert, or a mining planet run by aliens who enslave others, or the Empire people are killing everybody so they can collect coaxium hyperfuel, or whatever the hell the MaGuffin is in this. Everything’s run down bars with backroom gaming halls, or death stars-, there is literally nowhere in this universe where I would ever want to be. And that was okay for a few movies forty years ago, but this starting to be a detriment. I can think of places in Middle Earth I wouldn’t mind hanging around and I hate that world. Christ, there’s gotta be someplace where the Empire and the Rebels are not involved in everyday life and there has to be interesting things that happen those places too!

It’s this long fucking battle that never ends and there’s never a clear winner, and now we’re not even at the main narrative, we’re at the side-narrative, the prefaces of everything. Whoopee! I’m starting to really think I underestimated the third “The Matrix” movie,-, okay I’m not quite there yet, but at least that had an ending and a nice one at that! Come to think of it, that series actually hide good side stories prefaces to it. Is that what I should be comparing these films too, like, an “Animatrix” story?

(Shrugs)


Okay, so, enough bouncing around, what do I make of “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. Well, I’ll say this, I’m happy to actually see a car chase in “Star Wars”, and a good one at that. We meet Han as a street hustler on Corellia and as usual, he’s escaping, this time with his girlfriend Qi’Ra, (Emilia Clarke) but unfortunately, she doesn’t make it out. He joins the Empire swearing to become a pilot and find her years later. This leads him to being an infantry soldier during some war that I’m not sure what to make of. It’s there that he joins a gang of thieves that he finds led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson). They try to rob a train of the fuel that everybody wants but that doesn’t quite work and Beckett loses some men, most notably his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton). They also didn’t get the fuel so they had to go back to Dryden Vox (Paul Bettany) one of Crimson Dawn’s main overseers and make a hasty arrangement to steal unrefined MaGuffin fuel from an obscure mining planet that they have to get to by sorting through a Maelstrom.

This is when Han seeks out Lando, and tries to arrange use of his ship, the Millennium Falcon. Lando comes with his own baggage and excesses at this time, mostly hustling as a gambler. He’s also in love with his combative robot rights activist of a navigator L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who’s the one that can steer the ship.

The story is simple, but the action and effect sequences especially at the beginning of the movie are really quite cool. I like that for the most part this is basically just an excuse for some “Star Wars” action and little more. I suspect that if I knew nothing about the characters and world going in, I would rightly enjoy this as a nice classic sci-fi B-movie. Frankly, that’s all “Star Wars” ever was to begin with, so I’m pretty satisfied. I do like that essentially Han Solo is basically the Rick Blaine of “Star Wars”, a theory I always figured but this movie confirms it. I don’t think I want anymore Han Solo movies, but I’m happy with this one and Aiden Ehrenheich is a very believable Solo. If you’re not as tired out by the franchise as I am, I suspect others would enjoy this one more than me, but I’m more-or-less waiting for a conclusion to this damn thing at this point now.


READY PLAYER ONE (2018) Director: Steven Spielberg


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(17 MINUTES IN)

STOP! I need to stop! 

(DVD paused. Sigh) 

Let me see if I got this right. In the future, of this world, of “Ready Player One”, every amount of world progress has stopped, because of a video game. A video game that encapsulates, the ability for anybody to do/use or create anything but since it’s creator has died, he’s gone all Willy Wonka meet LOTR and hidden keys into this virtual reality world that everybody exists in where everybody studies and analyzes pop culture to find the three keys because that’s apparently what the creator was obsessed with, and the possessor of those keys would then be able to control this world filled with pop culture references. This is a world of gamers who are obsessed with pop culture nerdom because their creator was obsessed with popculture, so now everybody’s playing a video game in order for somebody to become the leader of the video game world obsessed with pop culture nerddom.

(Long thinking pause, deep sigh)


Okay, this is the worst movie of the year. I’m not kidding; I’m deadly serious. I don’t care that I got a couple hours left in the film, I don’t care who made it. I’ll watch it all the way through, ‘cause of who made, and so far, I think that-, maybe I’ll like this movie, a lot, ‘cause it’s goddamn Steven Spielberg and he can make anything tolerable or even good. (Except “War Horse”, I-, I don’t know what went wrong there. Oh, and “1941”, but that was him trying to make a comedy, we can let that slide.) But, I don’t care, I’m not accepting this celebration of geekdom by geekdom in a world worshipping geekdom in a world worshipping geekdom just to be the ruler of geekdom by being the greatest geek/nerd in the world of them. Fuck this movie, fuck this concept, fuck the book that it’s based on. Even “Ender’s Game” had a real reason to be obsessed with finding the greatest gamers, it was a war strategy, that was used to defeat a villain after all other typical military and combat options were proven inferior, this is just justifying one’s fetishes as a lifestyle and creating a fantasy world in which to live it out, unless this thing has a really good dark twist ending where everybody gets destroyed by their own selfishness, fuck this movie, and even then, just putting this concept out there instead of keeping it in the playroom next to the useless action figures and the much better and more fun to play with plush animals, is just wrong. It’s the bottom of the barrel for this era of nostalgia worship, and it needs to stop! NOW!

(Deep breath, sigh)

Okay, I’ve said my peace, Master Storyteller Spielberg, continue telling this story, and I will try, I repeat “try”, to give an honest thoughtful analysis of the execution of the content.

(2 ½ HOURS LATER)


★½


(Long deep growl)
Okay, obviously, my hopes that I would enjoy this in spite of my disgust with the concept, were not fulfilled. I’m trying to get an understanding of why I’m supposed to appreciate this, but all I really see is some bane message about how good and important it is to be a fan, ‘cause fans,- I don’t know, they-eh,- fans like things others create? I feel like I’ve just been told to play a video game forever and ever so I can get to the end, only for the reveal at the end to be, “Stay in the real world; ‘cause it’s real!” Like, exactly like that episode of “South Park” that parodied “Rock Band”, only they found the humor in it, and this movie doesn’t get how pathetic this actually is.

You know what it is, it’s the fact that indeed, everybody is apart of the OASIS, the virtual world in this universe that everyone’s lives revolve around. Maybe symbolically it works, but literally it doesn’t, and I know this ‘cause there is a good version of this story.

I don’t know what the comparisons to “Ready Player One” have been, I thought it was pretty much “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” to begin with, and yeah there’s a lot of that in there, including all the goddamn Easter Eggs, including some literal ones. I’ve seen “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, mentioned a bit, you know, that was a fantasy story in a fantasy world, a world where cartoon characters existed alongside humans and that also include an evil villain mastermind who wants to destroy their world in order to benefit in his, in this case, the character’s name is Sorrentino (Ben Mendehlson), but the real comparison to show just how awful this truly is, is Gary Ross’s “Pleasantville”. That movie basically has the same plot, characters enter a fictional made up world, only to eventually discover that they instead of living in this fantasy they have to instead go and make do and live and deal with the real world and the real circumstances of it. It also does it, by stripping away the fantasy world that they’re in and realize that the fantasy itself was not what it seemed to be. As far as I can tell, the OASIS, is what it is, a utopian OASIS that exists, outside the world as we know it that people would rather spend their literal lives in, and such a world is dangerous no matter what it entails. Which is why somebody like Sorrentino would be willing to take advantage of it.

Anyway, our main hero is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned young adult who lives in what are called, the Stacks of Columbus, OH, the layers of old shipping crates and mobile homes, the Hoovervilles under which the centerpiece of the OASIS world is, along where IOI has built up an army of anonymous gamers known as Sixers (Which, as a Philadelphia 76ers fan, is really annoying, I’m used to cheering for my Sixers!) are searching for three Easter Eggs that the game’s original creator, a Mr. James Holliday (Mark Rylance) had put these eggs in the game before his passing a few years ago. Along with several other gamers who could win control of the OASIS if they find the three keys. He along with other racers like Aach (Lena Waithe) a graphic designer of objects that can’t be bought or sold in the stores with coins in this world and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) a rebel leader who had a personal vendetta against Sorrentino and who like Wade had chosen not to “Clan Up” together as many gamers had in search for the missing Keys. It’d been years and the only clue anybody had to the location of one key was an underground race that was impossible to win that Wade, known as Parzival in the OASIS would ride everyday hoping to find a way to finish it and achieve the first keys, and of course, once he figures out the secret to the race, along with a helpful search through Holliday’s archives, ‘cause Holliday kept track of everything in his entire life including every film he ever watched and when. (Loser! Nobody has to keep track of when they watched something, you just have make a list of every film you’ve ever watched, trying to keep of when you watched is just stupid.) 

It’s a pretty traditional narrative form. Sorrentino wants to capture them and find the keys for himself, he goes after the team in both the OASIS and the real world,- unfortunately he doesn’t quite get pop culture so he’s at a disadvantage. Also, he’s worst than Sony at keeping passwords in especially secret places, mostly though, it’s the pop culture thing that pisses me off. Like, fine, he’s an executive tool who only wants technology to advertise and control others, at least let him be big into Monopoly? Something, nobody’s truly that maniacal, even Trump has hobbies and interest, stupid ones but still…, and no, Kegels does not count. I’m saying that nobody’s that disconnected from the world, certainly not in this world. Frankly, I lost it when they cut to the man in his earpiece explaining to him that Ridgemont High wasn’t in a John Hughes movie.

BTW, with all these goddamn people in the OASIS, when the hell do they have all the time to listen to all the eighties music or watch all these movies and TV shows and such, or watch Art3Mis’s Twitch tutorials or whatever BS? Unlike Sorrentino, or anybody it seems, I had to study and learn all this shit, I'm still learning a lot of it, not because I have great affection for all these pop culture things, but because I strongly believe that I should know them, especially since this is my field of work and study, but I also think it's just important to learn about things including and especially what's popular in the world. I mean, how did Holliday find all the goddamn time to get off his ass and create all this shit, and still manage to have an 11th favorite horror movie, that apparently, people like Wade are supposed to know about and study up on?!

Who the hell has an 11th Favorite Horror Movie?! (I’m gonna get a phone call from some of my horror friends for that one, but seriously, I don’t have an eleventh favorite horror movie!)

I’ll give it this, the film is made well. The production design and special effects are amazing. It’s cinematography is spectacular. It’s the high quality I expect from Spielberg. But I can’t get over the story, and all the implications it has, all the behaviors it celebrates, and all the mixed messages it has about nostalgia and pop culture as being the be all and end all. I can admire the craft, but I can’t accept what the product represents.  


ISLE OF DOGS (2018) Director: Wes Anderson


★★★★1/2

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I've always suspected that a secret influence of Wes Anderson's work is classic children's lit. Literature in general plays a major role in many of his best films, but there's such a wonderful freeing sensability to his best films that I often feel like he probably has more inspiration from say Roald Dahl or Laura Lee Hope or Gertrude Chandler Warner. They're making a new Nancy Drew movie, and I'm surprised his name never popped up as a director choice for that; he would be such a perfect choice. "Isle of Dogs" clearly has some darker influences, but I could easily see this be a book on the same shelf that I would've found "The Chocolate War" or one of my personal favorites of that age, "The Girl Who Owned a City". (Although, that one's a little too dark for me to want to see a Wes Anderson version of it.)

The movie takes place in a futuristic Japan where the evil dog-hating authoritarian mayor Kenji Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, one of the film’s writers) has banned all of the nation’s dogs to Trash Island after a strain of a canine disease infiltrates the city of Megasaki. His political rival Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) insists that their close to creating a serum, but it’s of no use and the first dog was a bodyguard of a distant orphaned nephew named Spots (Live Schreiber). Eventually, his owner Atari (Koyu Rankin) hijacks a plane and heads to Trash Island to find his dog, thinking it was the other dogs who killed him, but eventually Chief (Bryan Cranston) the main dog in a pack that’s formed on the island, decides to help him find Spots. This leads on an adventure where they have to fight off, first some robot dogs that are trained to kill, and on this elaborate adventure to an abandoned by a tribe of cannibals on an abandoned, quarantined part of the island that used to house a nuclear power plant.  

At the same time this is going on, Professor Watanabe is poisoned by Kobayashi, and an American exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig) who’s more trusting in science than in the benevolent dictator, seeks out Watanabe’s assistant Yoko Ono (Yoko One, yeah, really.) and begins starting an underground paper to undermine the Mayor. Eventually all these elements come together and combine in strange and unique ways. There’s perhaps too many converging elements, I barely mentioned the several other dogs in the pack which is voice by an all-star cast of Wes Anderson regulars, or

I also can't help but notice, well, some of the more obvious commentary in the film. Of course, for something that's based n children's lit, why not? Why not have a movie about Japanese dogs being forcibly deported to an abandoned island simply because they're supposedly sick and carrying a virus? A dictatorial Emperor using scare tactics in order to convince the nation of dog lovers to suddenly turn and turn in their beloved pets, all because he hates them and wants them rid of in society. Why not? "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" started with King Friday 13th building a wall to keep people out of Make-Believe, sometimes they simple wrongs need to be shown simply, especially for kids. And this is a kids' movie; I don't care that it's PG-13 and it’s a little dark at times, like including some grotesque portrayals of death; it's PG-13 in the same way that "The Rats of NIMH" was PG in it's time. Actually, those two films have some similarities but the "The Rats of NIMH" was directly an adaptation of a children's lit classic as well.

Wes Anderson has a strange sense of humor, but I think most people dismiss it as a detached one, but with movies like this or “Moonrise Kingdom” among others, I feel like he’s more soulful than we realize. This is his second time with stop-motion animation after the wonderful “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, which itself is a Roald Dahl adaptation, and one of the better ones we’ve seen since the original “Willy Wonka…” film. There’s a childlike whimsy mixed with an adult sentiment in his work that when he’s at his best, it really explodes onto the screen. Many of the reviews I’ve seen of the film talk about how dark it is, or even about how he seems to run out of story because of the narrative’s limitations, but the darkness doesn’t bother me and I think he’s more purposeful than most realize. He knows the flaws in his writing, I think he’s often emphasizing them in order to replicate other similar works that he’s inspired by. Classic children’s lit is full of these aberrations and contrivances, and often-the-case they’re praised for them. I think that’s the same way with Anderson’s best works, he’s more interested in the exuberant whimsical deconstructionist narratives that many of these pieces of classic lit embrace and he puts that them into his films. A gentle wink and a nod for those who know what he’s really referencing and is inspired by.

Speaking of inspiration, there’s some criticism and discussion about the cultural appropriation he’s been accused since the film does have a lot of Japanese cinema references as well, including possibly some of the negative stereotypes and portrayals over the years. (Shrugs) I don’t know, I guess you can criticize this aspect negatively in several places, but honestly I like Michael Phillips point in his review comparing the film to Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”. He might be borrowing from the language of Japanese cinema, but the style is uniquely his and filled with his inspirations as much as anything else. “The Mikado” is also full of politically subversive satire as well.  


THE WIFE (2018) Director: Bjorn L. Runge


★★★★1/2

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My initial thoughts on “The Wife” were originally of fear and dread. Not for any particular reason, mostly it had to do with the way the film was shot. Director Bjorn Runge didn’t do anything unusual or that I didn’t expect, he basically set the movie around Glenn Close, as in she was at the center of the frame most of the time, while everything else seemed to be happening around her. Her husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature and even though she’s used to being the long-suffering wife who’s tagged along at parties, she’s more in the background and in the middle of everything than ever before and the movie showcases this. It’s what I was expecting, my initial thoughts into the film, as it followed Joan (Oscar-nominee Close) through all this chaos was, something along the lines of, "I hope this isn't too much "Mrs. Dalloway"-like. I had been harboring some ill will towards that book after trying to read it recently and realizing that there weren't any chapter breaks or any real break point to speak of. (Sidenote: I still think not doing chapters is the most insane thing about Virginia Woolf.) 

Then the movie went into flashback sequences, that at first seemed so cliche and then I started wondering when do we get back to the more, centered-focus but ignored by everyone stuff again.

These were my initial thoughts. After a while however, I let those initials ideas go as I let the movie continue on and we got a much more different story about a long-suffering wife, one that I’m not entirely certain how to talk about without giving more information than I want. In fact, WARNING: I might make allusions to SPOILERS in this review; I’m trying not to, but I'm not sure I can help it.

I’m also not entirely certain when the movie takes place, based on the flashbacks, I think it’s supposed to take place hmm, sometime in the ‘90s. There’s a mention of knocking Bill Clinton off the front page of a magazine, but I think this movie could’ve probably been set at any point, although knowing the ages of the actors, I get the feeling that this script might’ve been around for awhile and only now did they finally get around to making it. It wouldn’t be the first time with Glenn Close, who last got an Oscar nomination before this with “Albert Nobbs”, another movie that she was about twenty years too old for the role, but she also had played that role on and off Broadway for about twenty years as well. "The Wife" is based on a popular Meg Wolitzer novel that was published about a decade and a half ago and took about half that time to finally make it to the big screen. Not a justification of her performance, she’s goddamn Glenn Close, it’s a great performance, and in fact, part of me wonders about these flashbacks sequences necessities, I might've just preferred it without those scenes and more of Glenn Close. Besides, we basically learn most of the information we need without them, much of it through a biographer character named Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) who’s hassles both Joe and Joan, as well as their son David (Max Irons) who’s also on the trip to Stockholm and is an inspiring writer as well.

The other reason I’m focusing on the structure and the time period is that the movie that most reminds me of “The Wife” was made around the early ‘90s as well, and that’s Kieslowski’s film “Blue”, part of the “Three Colors Trilogy”. That’s also a film about a wife of a famous artist, but that movie is also about her grieving her husband and kid’s sudden passing, and then finding out information about him that she previously didn’t have. In “The Wife”, Joan’s not out-of-the-loop on anything regarding her husband, in fact, she knows way too much and is still by his side, convinced that’s the best position for her to be in life, to be “The Wife” of the Great Man, at least that’s what it seems.

In hindsight, I think about those shots in the beginning more of watching Close’s face in the middle of everything, on a first viewing, we wonder just what she’s thinking, but on a second viewing, those scenes become even more elaborate. What other truths that she knows. We get some hints at the end, when she finally does implode a few times, but both time, literally life and death interrupts as her and husband's carefully crafted lives both crumble to the ground, and remain standing strong and she’s retreats back into that quiet wife who’s more protective of her husband and his position and legacy than ever. 

Or at least, she is for now, but what story does she have brewing behind those eyes now, we wonder.


MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018) Director: Josie Rourke


★★1/2



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There are certain historical people who we keep making movies or TV shows about that personally, I suspect aren’t particularly good characters for film or TV. Their stories and influence might very well be important and need to be told, but I think the medium tends to fail them. Now, that’s not a belief that I hold to religiously and I have been surprised over time. The first name I would’ve thought for this sentiment years ago would’ve been Marie Antoinette, but then Sofia Coppola made her underrated masterpiece about her so I’ve had this theory blown to shit before. Another one that pops into my head is Henry VIII, actually a lot of the Royal Family within a good couple hundred years there come to mind. I know some people are fascinated by politics of the Court of that time, which was itself mostly fascinated with sex and it’s insistence on creating a male heir and throwing around religion as needed in order to go to war over, in some cases, literally some of the stupidest reasons people have ever gone to war over, but-eh, for me, I tend to find it frustrating even when done well. (Watching “The Tudors” was a goddamn chore to sit through.) 

That’s why I was not necessarily looking forward to a new movie about “Mary Queen of Scots” (Saoirse Ronan). She’s one of those historical figures to me. I mean, is there a signature “Mary Queen of Scots” film out there that we all tend to agree on as the best? I know there's the one with Vanessa Redgrave that got her an Oscar nomination in the '70s, and I can't remember the last time that film's ever been brought up, there's the John Ford-directed one starring Katharine Hepburn but that movie's most notable for being one of the flops that labeled Hepburn as "Box Office Poison", there's a couple famous silent movie portrayals, hell, this is the second time there's been a "Mary Queen of Scots" film, this decade, but I'd have a hard time believing that any truly stick out to me as quintessential film or even as-eh, the singular important Mary Queen of Scots film and I suspect that’s because, she’s not the greatest character for a movie. “Mary Queen of Scots” seems to be trying at least. For those unfamiliar with the palace intrigue, after Henry VIII’s passing, the throne of England went to Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), who’s also a character who’s struggled to be compelling on film, although, I tend to find her interesting in supporting roles. After all the crap he pulled trying to garner a male heir, Elizabeth I, eh, well, in this film they give her Lord Dudley (Joe Aldwyn) as a suitor; she- it's really debatable whether she had any real serious suitors, but close enough in this case, and never had kids. So, Mary, is a cousin of hers, although they're sometimes referred to each other as sisters, (They were actually first cousins-once removed, and I'm not going further into the lineage) but she was part Scottish, part-French as well, and actually married when she was a teenager in France, but her husband died young, and when she turned eighteen, return to rule over Scotland. We tend to think of the United Kingdom or Great Britain as one country, but historically it doesn’t really play out that way, and even today there’s tension. Scotland’s still trying to get away from England, and frankly after Brexit, I completely understand why, Northern Ireland is still fighting this Protestant vs. Catholics battle and apparently Wales has a giant hole in its sky where aliens and doctors and other otherworldly keep falling out of the sky and screwing everything up. (Okay, that’s not true about Wales; I actually have no idea about the history Wales in this regard.)  The really important factor is that Mary is Catholic, while Elizabeth is Protestant, which of course, was a church created by her Father because he wanted to divorce one wife and marry another…-, ([Frustrated sigh] God, Henry VIII is so fucking annoying....) on top of that, with Elizabeth I not baring an heir, this essentially makes her second in line to the throne, with a huge claim to it herself since she is s Stuart, and in Scotland she’s fairly beloved.

So, Elizabeth first offers Mary Lord Dudley to marry, which Mary sees right through pretty easily as she insists on only marrying him if she’s named the direct heir, and only this request after it’s heard that Elizabeth is suffering from smallpox. She survives the smallpox but then Mary does marry Lord Barnley (Jack Lowden), who is English nobleman, but Elizabeth isn’t particularly thrilled with his father, so she rejects that marriage and the religion thing is played up, as she funds a Civil War in Scotland to overthrow Mary.

I know the broad strokes of the history here, but not the details, so I’m not entirely sure which ones are more accurate than others but they do insinuate pretty heavily something kinda interesting, in that while Mary is Catholic, she’s more open to allowing other religions to be practice, as well as a more liberal and progressive lifestyle being acceptable as well. At one point her husband sleeps with a dear friend of hers, Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who’s a guy that’s clearly accepted as a woman among her peer group of maids and friends. Elizabeth meanwhile is intent on treated the office of Queen, pretty masculine-like, but is not necessarily open to such frivolousness. I’m gonna wait ‘til the History Buffs guy does an episode to really be sure of the accuracy to history here, as oppose to accurate, but I could be wrong. “The Favourite” apparently was more accurate than I would’ve imagined originally, so…. (Shrugs) Still, these choices seem more screenwriting flourishes, and not necessarily bad ones. The film is written by Beau Willimon most known for being the creator of the American version of “House of Cards”, so he is relatively good at the mixing of personal and political intrigue. He also co-wrote “The Ides of March”, which dealt a bit with this as well. Still though, a lot of these parallels, they get tiresome pretty quickly to be honest.

Frankly, I think the reason the story of Mary Queen of Scots always sorta falters onscreen is because of how it does get bogged down in all the complex minutia. Like, a lot of this is brought on by the irony that the so-called “wise men” are now maneuvering for power at the whims of two women. There’s a lot of antagonism against Mary because she’s a woman and yet, they’re fighting essentially for Elizabeth in that case. There’s also the battle for heirs, the religious aspects, the different reactions to their religion and their tolerance thereof of others, the politics of sex and power in all mearnings of both those words, this is all before you head into the real palace intrigue of everybody screwing over everybody else all in a rail to screw their Queens. 

(Sigh)

You know, maybe this is just the American in me talking, but it really does amaze me, just how long most of the Western world went, before they finally decided to get rid of all the monarchies and re-embrace Democracy. I mean, England still keeps up the tradition, but this familial drama shit is bad enough, but then you remember that the whole of two nations were caught up and dying for these two women and all the men who were trying to snatch power from them. You know, I think that’s why “The Favourite”, to go back to that film, struck such a powerful cord for me, that entire movie’s basis is just to undermine just how insane and ridiculous this all was, and hear,-, well, I mean, it’s too important to take that approach to this story and turn it into a savage satire or parody, but when it is played seriously, it just undermines all the shortcomings of everybody. Those at the top on both sides to those on the bottom on both sides, and I think I’d rather hear this story from some other perspective, preferably from the kind of distance to the action that would lead to some “Blessed are the Cheesemakers”-level of mishearing details.

That said, there is good stuff here. The movie does place Mary Stuart in the history books fairly well. The acting is impressive all around. I think most people admired Margot Robbie’s work as Queen Elizabeth the most, but I thought Saoirse Ronan was born to play this role. This is actually a pretty stellar cast, and the makeup and costumes are strong; I didn’t even realize it was Guy Pearce playing Cecil the whole time. There’s other favorite actors here of mine, Adrian Lester is a curious but good choice for Lord Randolph, Brendan Coyle and David Tennant are strong. I also love the set design; it’s common to see great set design with an extravagant British monarchy court, but I love the scenes in the Scottish castle here. This feels like something that’s both royal but also feels like I would think of as Scotland at that that. Eh, I’m on the fence but I think I still have to pan the film overall, and I’m sticking to my original theory, “Mary Queen of Scots” is just not a good historical character when it comes to dramatizing her life on film. Her story needs to be told, but this is not the medium.


AT ETERNITY'S GATE (2018) Director: Julian Schnabel

★★★★★




Vincent Van Gogh (Oscar-nominee Willem Dafoe) has had an interesting and unusual history when it comes to adaptations of him on film. Most famously, he was played by Kirk Douglas in "Lust for Life", that one I haven’t seen, but I have seen Tim Roth’s portrayal of him in Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo”, one of Altman’s underrated classics. Still even more recently, one of the more experimental films about him, and that’s saying something considering those films was “Loving Vincent”, an animated feature that was entirely made by paintings done in his style and of his subjects that were created in order to take his paintings and create a piece of cinema of them. It’s one of the most amazing pieces of cinema done in several years. That said, I’m a little skeptical of people who keep trying to tell Van Gogh’s story. He’s one of those historical characters who story seems like it really should be cinematic, but I always wonder about it myself. Not that these films are bad, quite the contrary, they’re all pretty good, but similar to Mary Queen of Scots, I think it’s debatable whether or not a great film about Van Gogh has been made or for that matter is even possible. I actually find him considerably less romantic of a figure than others do; he’s often the prototype for the tortured artist narrative to many people, but usually when I think about his life and consider the works of art he created, I tend to find myself trying to consider Van Gogh very clinically. 

Like, we know he wasn’t sane, he famously cut off his ear, he barely had one of his paintings sold in his lifetime, and that despite his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) being one of Paris’s biggest and most influential art merchants of the day, but I still mostly just ponder what exactly was wrong with him. Was he schizophrenic, was he bipolar, was he just too ahead of his time? Is it that he was crazy as to why were fascinated by his paintings today? Was Van Gogh a mad genius or just mad, or was he a genius because he was mad, or was he mad because he was a genius?  

Julian Schnabel’s not the first name that would’ve crossed my mind for someone to do yet another dive into trying to capture Van Gogh, but that’s more a fault on my end, ‘cause he might be the closest we have to a rare natural fit for his work. Schnabel’s a bit erratic as a filmmaker; he’s more-than-capable of amazing work, most notably for me, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” but he is more of an artist than a filmmaker. Literally, he first became famous for tripping up much of the established art crowd with his modern art pieces; the most famous one of his that I’m aware of is his "Plate Paintings", where he broke several plates and then constructed or glued them together on canvas. It also helps that Schnabel is at his best as a filmmaker when he’s got a subject that requires more of a experimental artistic edge. He doesn’t try to tell a straight-away biopic, not necessarily anyway, although he certainly goes through some of the same territory, 

Vincent and his relationship with his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), there’s also the part about his friendship with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), and of course the ear, and the time he was institutionalized, and eventually his passing, but they also touch on a debt he repaid to a Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner), which was recently discovered 126 years after his death. It included a ledger that he sent back to her which had over 60 drawings of his inside it .Mostly though, it’s about the struggle to get inside his mind. I know, all Van Gogh films are about that, but I think this one might be the closest to it yet. It doesn’t speculate on what necessarily may or may not have possessed him, but the movie also dwells on hypothetical conversations and incidents that he may or may not have had. Sometimes it seems like Van Gogh can’t remember them if they did happen, or that they happened at all. There are some great sequences where Schnabel uses some fascinating dissolve cuts and overlapping Van Gogh’s dialogue and thoughts over himself and others he observed. There’s a lot of philosophizing here about art and life, especially with the scenes with Van Gogh and Gauguin. As somebody who writes, I can understand this notion of trying to create art through a mind that’s metaphorically fogged, but perhaps Van Gogh’s mind was fogged, and the painting was his way of trying to rid it of the demons that haunted him?

I like this interpretation of him, especially when considering his love of lighter sunny colors like yellow and blue much more often than some of the more traditional and typical darker colors that were common for most of the artists of the day. Despite my trepidations that I believe it’s always a little dangerous to try to go inside any artist mind who mind we know can’t entirely be trusted, Schnabel does come from experience as an artist himself, and you could read the movie as that struggle being real for all artists, especially the unique and masterful way Schnabel depicts it here. Perhaps he understand him more than others, or not, but it’s clearly someone understanding an artist’s process. When he does dwell on other, like a Priest character played by Mads Mikkelson or Mathieu Amalric as Dr. Gachet, one of Van Gogh’s more famous subjects, and several others, they feel like they’re coming from this perspective of trying to understand Van Gogh’s mind and thoughts as well. Trying to get inside the mind of an artist is a fascinating albeit a foolhardy endeavor, but so is being an artist.

The great tragedy of Van Gogh is that he never saw his success when he was alive, hardly the only one to suffer that fate of course, but “At Eternity’s Gate”, ponders that as well. Any artist believes that their work is supposed to or intended to live on beyond their years, they wouldn’t bother if they don’t. Still however, it’s not eternity like that. Painters paint for the same reason Priest’s prey, because it’s what they do. “At Eternity’s Gate” gives us an examination of that concept through one of art’s greatest examples of it, and I think succeeds because it doesn’t try to do much else to explain or dissect Van Gogh’s work. I don’t know if it’s a great film about Van Gogh, that filmmakers have been struggling to achieve for decades now, but if it’s the closest we ever get to it, I’ll be satisfied. 


RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET (2018) Directors: Phil Johnston and Rich Moore


★★★★

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Admittedly, I wasn’t particularly enthralled at the prospect of a sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph”. I liked that film, a lot; it made my Ten Best List the year it came out and I still think an argument can be made that it not winning Best Animated Feature is one of the biggest Oscars fuck-ups in the last decade or so. It’s damn near a masterpiece and it’s one of the few movies that’s directly inspired by video games that I actually like at all, partly because it was a movie that was inspired by video games, and not simply a video game plot trying to pretend to be a movie. And it felt and looked inspired, that movie took decades to make from conception to its final product and you can tell the time and energy that was put into it.

“Ralph Breaks the Internet” was almost assuredly never going to be able to keep up with that standard, but I like it anyway. It’s definitely got some interesting story decisions in it. I suspect, and I don’t have any direct proof of this, but I feel like this might’ve started life, not so much as a full-length sequel movie but as a quirky game in of itself. Actually, not a game, I bet this was intended as a theme park ride. One of those that comes with a visual screen with it and we follow the characters in an indoor roller coaster kinda thing. (I think that I’m supposed to appreciate theme park rides; I’ve never been much of a theme/amusement park guy, especially the rides; I went to Disneyland once as apart of my Senior classes trip in High School; I-eh, I don’t remember most of it. I got repelled up after the Indiana Jones ride and didn’t know that I was supposed to sit back down-; [I told you, I wasn't big into rides; it'd been well over a decade before and since then that I've been on roller coasters] everything else is a blur to me until I woke up in Barstow wearing a Mad Hatter hat on, but I think that’s how those kind of rides are appreciated? This feels like the way they’re described to me anyway.) Yeah, I think I’m gonna stick with this comparison, ‘cause I can totally see this as an amusement ride, that was just intended as an aberration. Take two of our favorite character from another property, along with anybody who buys a ticket, and send them on a quick adventure into a surreal universe that ends in about ten-to-fifteen minutes or so, but it got extended to an hour.

I’m sure they’re not the first people to come up with the concept of a visualized internet, but I usually like it when somebody does stuff that’s similar to that…- usually. (Oh, scroll up to that “Ready Player One” review folks, if you haven't, 'cause I had thoughts)  Kudos to begin with for not going with a simpler obvious sequel route of having another evil video game character show up in the arcade and Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) have to save themselves and their games again. They could’ve done that and I probably would’ve been okay if they did. So, I guess, why not the internet, and see what happens to them.

Okay, um, I take notes while writing a lot of these reviews, sometimes, and-eh, I wrote most of that part above before this movie got particularly meta. Um, oh boy, so, I did see, the trailers that showed the scenes where Vanellope is in conversation with all of the Disney Princesses, but I thought that was just created for the trailer; I really didn’t think this movie would get so meta.

Boy, now I really think my amusement park ride analogy is actually really on the nose here, ‘cause this feels like a ride that’s through some backstage antics at a Disney park. I guess there was a pretty long period of time where the idea of Disney satirizing itself so much would be sacrilege, but I think it’s safe to presume that we’re well past that before we got to this, but-eh, wow, yikes,- like they-eh,- it’s like Ralph & Vanellope are guiding us through Disney the Ride, at Disneyland, on the internet. I’m debating whether this is genius, or just a little bit too much. I can totally see this as a twisted warped like subversive ride through Disneyland or something. I mean, it’s kinda like if a hotel-casino in Las Vegas included bits and pieces of all the other major hotels on the Strip, in one casino that’s also on the Strip, meta-, I’m actually enjoying this.

I mean, I do gotta admit that, one of my secret goals is that if I ever become a writer for “Jeopardy!”, I always wanted to pitch an “Obscure Disney Princess” category, and,- well, Vanellope, is one of them, and definitely not a Princess who fits neatly into the mold of the lineup. Although my personal favorite obscure Disney Princess is Princess Calla, which I’m certain will be the $2000 question, if I’m allowed to reference someone that obscure. (She’s from “The Adventures of the Gummi Bears”, and now you know how old I am.)

You know, there’s actually not too much story here that I think I need to talk about. The steering wheel on Vanellope’s game breaks so Ralph and Vanellope going into the internet to buy a steering wheel on Ebay, but unfortunately they don’t have the money to pay, and now have to make money on the internet. Good luck with that. This leads Ralph to trying to earn hearts on BuzzzTube with the help of Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) but meanwhile, Vanellope becomes enthralled with a new online racing game called “Slaughter Race”, and starts befriending a fellow racer, Shank (Gal Gadot). She had been getting a little tired of her Sugar Rush game becoming so predictable and she finds comfort in Shank and her familial group of strange outsiders who never really fit in anywhere else, as we recall her pass as a glitch in her game. It’s actually a pretty heartbreaking parallel with the first movie, Ralph being tired of being the bad guy in his classic game decided to jump to other games in order to earn respect from the others until he was finally able to be comfortable as the bad guy. Here, it’s not as emotional, but it still heartbreaking to see now Vanellope wanting to jump to a different world entirely and now Ralph is the one who wants things to remain the same, and it doesn’t take the easy way out of having things go back to normal in the end.

Now that I think about it, I don’t recall too many big brother/younger sister narratives in Disney films, or even that many stories of best friends who inevitably have to deal with drifting apart over the years. Off the top of my head, I guess “The Fox and the Hound” sorta fits that latter descriptions, but not too many others. Certainly none of the Princess movies had that much of this kind of narrative, maybe if I’m stretching “Pocahontas”? (Irene Bedard) kinda, but this is actually a really unique friendship and relationship narrative for Disney, much more than I think may’ve realized. I think that’s partially why the Princesses scenes ultimately work, and yes, they’re all here, and it’s a little disturbing how they managed to get way more of all the voice actors back here for this then I would’ve thought they be able to. (You know, I never really thought about it, but most Disney Princesses are fairly recent additions to the Disney filmography aren’t they? I mean, of the major ones in the line, except for Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, the rest came in my lifetime. That’s weird. Huh, it’s always seemed so ingrained in Disney folklore, but really, it’s a much more of a recent trend, isn’t it?)

Well, I’m glad they explored these unique aspects to Ralph and Vanellope. The movie feels torn between ideas and direction a bit; you do get the sense that this probably started as a more light-hearted fun movie and things over time, kinda got more emotional and intense. It is a bit clumsy, but like, fair-warning, if you don’t love Disney meta-humor, this could get awkward, but I think “Wreck-It Ralph” deserves to be in the Canon of great Disney films and Ralph and Vanellope, the hall of great Disney characters, and I guess throwing in these some aspects and ideas and in some cases literally everything else associated with those movies and Disney is a nice touch to show it, and this film probably helps do that. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” isn’t great and sometimes the parts are hard to fit together here, but I liked everything I saw. I’m glad I watched and I’m more curious now about where these characters will go in the future, and where their friendship will go next.

I mean, I hate to be a realist, but I’m amazed Mr. Litwak’s (Ed O’Neil) little arcade has managed to survive this long….


OF FATHERS AND SONS (2018) Director: Talai derki




★★★★1/2



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Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Talil Derki’s previous feature “Return to Home”, so I might be somewhat out of the loop on this one. The documentary takes place inside Al-Qaeda-controlled Syria, which need I remind everybody, is still in the midst of a horrific Civil War that started up as a response to the Arab Spring a few years earlier. Here, Derki’s camera is focus not on the fighting or the soldiers but of the children in the area. Particularly Osama, age 13 and Ayman age twelve, who come to the dinner table, and must quote the Qu’Ran before saying hello to their father. We also briefly meet Mohammad-Omar, another of his kids, who was born on the six-year anniversary of 9/11, and his father named him after the Afghani Taliban Prince not Mohammad Atta the terrorist, although Osama and Ayman, for those familiar enough, are named exactly after who you think they are.

This is, not an easy watch; I don’t think that fact will surprise anybody. The difficulty for me, other then, everything else, was trying to figure out, how exactly to react to it. This is a movie about a terrorist and his two sons, who he is hoping, raising and in some ways training to become terrorists themselves. I thought of that old George Carlin joke about how Conservatives are anti-abortion but pro-war, “They want live kids to turn them into dead soldiers.” Yet, I struggle to seek to empathize with this family. What is it exactly about the Taliban that appeals to Radical Islamics; what is it that makes Radical Islams appealing in general? It’s apparently a religion that treasures God’s creatures enough for the father to tell his kid constantly not to squeeze too tightly, a live bird that he’s found, but seems happy to find out that they instead slaughtered the animal for his death. The father is shown beating his kid with a whip for losing a fight with another, or for fighting to begin with, and yet he’s literally shooting at people from a safe distance, “The guy fell off the bike,” he mentions after taking a shot, and complaining that he needs a new gun because the bullet’s jammed.

What to live with him? What to be segregated from the rest of the world? Make no mistake, the Taliban, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, this is a cult. This is brainwashing. All religions are brainwashing of course, but they are a group of low-rent thugs who convince others that they need to kill and die in the name of Allah. The kids don’t go to school, they're sent eventually to a military school but, the kids don’t learn much outside of the home, and at young ages they’re taught and trained like they’re preparing for eventual martyrdom. I wonder about one of these kids growing up and becoming old and thinking, “I never once needed to climb up a wall with a rope, why did they make us do that?”; he’ll probably make that kind of observation after becoming a successful bombmaker I suppose.

The father inevitably loses a foot while attempting to defuse old land mines though. These make the kids, particularly Osama sad. Still, the kids are trained to become apart of a caliphate and are fed lies and misinformation about the greatness of Allah, their destiny to be soldiers of god, and practically everything else. And why not, literally everything around them informs them that this is the only option, even the music that they listen to is all about the greatness of martyrdom.

(Sigh)

At one point, the father pontificates that this is all just the precipice for what is inevitably, a world war. I’ve thought that too myself to be honest. The first screenplay I ever wrote was a short called “1000 Years of Peace”, it was sci-fi military piece about nothing related to this film, but the title I got was from Nostradamus; one of the more popular and infamous interpretations of some of his prophecies is that there will be a third world war, that’s based in the Middle East, after they attack what he called the “New City”, which most people interpret to be New York City. After that war finally ended, he claimed that there’d be a 1000 years of peace; I don’t know how much credit one should give the Nostradamus stuff myself, but is that what this will lead to, is it leading there already, are we already there? They’re going to succeed, and they will survive all our incursions into Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, wherever, 'cause they have Allah on their side? Or we just eradicate them ‘cause we’re bigger, stronger, have better more destructive weapons and a willingness to use them, and/or frankly we just wanted the damn oil? Is this a Holy War that will not end until one religion eradicates and replaces the other? It’s not unprecedented in human history; you don’t see too many people celebrating Yule much these days or praying to Zeus or Jupiter? That what they think it is, and that's also what they seem to want as well. 

I should also mention that he has multiple wives, and there's other young women around but we do not see any of the women onscreen. Hajib or no hajib.

I have a lot of questions and very few answers, and frankly I’m not sure I want the answers to some of them after pushing my way through “Of Fathers and Sons”. I guess the main thing I think about is how truly terrifying this film about terrorists is. It's amazing it got made at all, but not what of it. I have seen the enemy, I know his face. I know his family, and how he acts and behaves and what he thinks now. Just, now, what exactly do I do with this information; I would hate to be any of the people, who would have to determine that. 


CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) Director: Jon M Chu


★★★★★




It’s fairly big news whenever a major Hollywood feature is made with a predominantly Asian cast. In fact, you could argue that all of ostracized demographics that Hollywood tends to ignore, in terms of films being made by them, about them and starring them, that Asians are probably less-profiled than all others, except for probably Native Americans. I mean, just within the last few years, think of all the whitewashing claims we’ve heard; even Asian characters are rarely cast by Asians, and that’s certainly not a new standard either, that’s been pretty par for the course since the earliest days of the silent era. Of course, there’s some wonderful independent cinema from Asian-American filmmakers but big budget, or even little-budget Hollywood-backed are pretty rare. Rarer still, at least lately are romantic-comedies, that'S unfortunately the most dying of dying genres it seems, which is really disappointing ‘cause frankly we can use a lot more than we’ve gotten, especially relatively good ones. When is the last time these two paths have crossed, Hollywood rom-com with a mainly Asian cast? Um, probably “Bride & Prejudice” I guess. That was a pretty good movie. That was an Indian-American movie and done in the style of Bollywood, and yes, was a loose remake of the one decent Jane Austen novel, so British story, but still, I’d have a hard time coming up with anything else that wasn’t a barely-heard-of indy, and I can’t imagine anything else falling under the rom-com label, and most of them usually have a white protagonist. So, yeah, “Crazy Rich Asians”, is certainly an anomaly; it shouldn’t be, but… anyway, the movie’s a delight.

It’s not a new narrative or anything, but it’s a fun one. It’s basically, My Big Fat Crazy Rich Asian Boyfriend's Family,- well, actually that’s not fair, this a far better movie that’ll hold up better than that one has. We meet Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) an NYU Economics Professor who’s specialty is Game Theory and teaches her kids skills of playing an opponent, by using,- um, 5 card draw, poker? (Huh. I mean, I guess that works, although I would’ve thought Texas Hold’em, or maybe 5 Card Stud, would be better games for that…-, but alright….) She’s currently dating Nick Young (Henry Golding) a young good-looking Chinese-via-Singapore guy,- (So, I guess, Singaporean? Or is he Chinese-Singaporean? I don’t know, Singapore is a weird mix of everything around Asian,- sorry, ignore me, my geography fascination’s getting ahold of me; I’ll stop.) who’s intentionally vague about certain details of his family, as he prepares to bring Rachel to Singapore to meet them, for his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding.to Araminta (Soyona Mizuno). Unbeknownst to Rachel, this wedding in Singapore is the equivalent to what would happen if a Windsor married somebody with a last name of Vanderbilt-Rockefeller-Kennedy-Sultan of Brunei.

It quickly becomes apparent though when she meets the majority of Nick’s family at their Tan Hua Blooming party, (It’s a flower that apparently only blooms for like a few minutes a year, they throw a party for it. They’re-, well, look at the title!) starting of course with his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), a take-no-bullshit matriarch who we first meet getting rejected for a room because she’s Asian at a London Hotel, and in response calls the owner and buys the hotel. Of course, she is not impressed with Rachel for her Nick, although his Grandmother Ah Ma (Lisa Lu) is slightly more endearing towards him. There’s several other characters in this ensemble and I’m not going to be able to go through them all, but regarding Nick’s family, along with all the wedding subplots including bachelor and bachelorette parties that are as excessive and insane as you’d expect, there’s one subplot that feels awkward involving Nick’s closest sibling Astrid (Gemma Chan) who’s the only member of the family that Rachel once previously met, and is the most empathetic and nurturing of the bunch, despite having just as excessive a shopping habit as nearly everybody else in this family and their n'er-do-wells does. (As one character observed, nobody likes getting free stuff more than the rich.) She’s married to a workaholic husband, Michael (Pierre Png) who she finds out is having an affair. This is an awkward subplot to be honest, not because it’s bad, but it just doesn’t fit in much with the main narrative, and it’s also, pretty much the only secondary plot that’s given a lot of time; it essentially has it’s own beginning, middle and end. I suspect, but don’t know for certain that, there’s probably more elaborate explanations, stories and subplots to all these characters in the novel that the movie’s based on, as oppose to just focusing on the main plot, although Kevin Kwan the author of the novel, while not listed as a screenwriter, is listed as a producer, so I suspect he had some imput.

I will say this, the movie’s entertaining and interesting enough that I’m definitely going to be seeking out the novel to find out in the future, but I do suspect that, this movie might’ve benefitted from going on another hour or so. I know, that’s a weird think to say for an episodic rom-com, but this movie presents us such a rich world and tapestry that even if poor Rachel is just going to get the cold shoulder from her boyfriend’s mother and a dead fish from the catty jealous single rich bitches who didn’t get Nick, I’d still like to see more of her matriculating through it. Plus, there’s a lot of good characters here that could easily be the main in their own movies. And Awkwafina playing Peik Lin, the eccentric new money best friend of Rachel’s from college, her one sole friend in this area of the world, and she is awesome! You always need a great best friend character in these kind of movies, and she’s easily one of my favorites.

I’ve leaving out a lot of other good performances too; there’s some strong work here from Ken Jeong, Jing Lusi, Fiona Xie has a really fun role. There’s some other narratives and subtexts in the movie, especially with Rachel being American and not from wealth casting her as an outsider, obviously the dichotomy of the lives between the middle-to-lower class, and the crazy rich, and always some subtle angular details eyeing the differences between the rich and the crazy rich, in particular old money, which the Chus are, and the new money that’s come about in recent decades in Singapore and several other parts of the Far East that’s exploded into wealth in recent years; those are curiously interesting details as well. The movie was directed by Jon M. Chu, a go-to Hollywood director who's mostly known as a director for a lot of-, teenage pop material. He's directed a couple Justin Bieber documentaries as well as some "Step Up" sequels and the much-maligned adaptation of "Jem and the Holograms". He's been kicking out of it lately with some bigger action franchise sequels to"G.I. Joe" and "Now You See Me" but this is really the first time I've seen him and I suspect the first time he's really dealt with something that's personal to him and his culture, and he does a really good job here. 

I want to especially note the costume design and in particular, the production design. Those are two areas where movies that take place in modern time, people often seem to want to overlook, but this movie just doesn’t work without them. And it’s also just funny and smart as a romantic-comedy, any time that genre’s done well these days, it’s gotta receive bonus points ‘cause it’s apparently hardly anybody can figure out how to do properly anymore, and some people just do not get how much harder this kind of movie is to do well, then these like, powerful, emotional dramas or action movies or-, or nearly anything else. This story, could’ve been a straight drama, at one point, Rachel even says that, she came over here to meet your family and now she feels like a villain in a soap opera, and she’s not wrong, this could’ve been a melodramatic soap opera of a movie, and it could’ve been done well if they did that it, but telling a nice rom-com, is way more interesting, fun, and much more difficult to pull off well. I can’t wait to see more good rom-coms and I can’t wait to see more movies with predominantly Asian and Asian-American casts being made by Hollywood, and I hope those two things aren’t just connected for this single film too.

Also, I want more dumplings. Dumplings and noodles and those spicy crab things. Hmmm...


WIDOWS (2018) Director: Steve McQueen

★★★


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There’s a peculiar long take that’s on the outside of a limousine in “Widows”. It follows the car, while it’s two passengers, a son of a local Alderman, Jack (Colin Farrell) who’s running for his father, Tom’s (Robert Duvall) spot and his personal assistant Siobhan (Molly Kunz)  are talking about the state of the special election that they’re in the middle of. They have a pretty long conversation about it, and it’s not a bad conversation by any means, even the discussion about whether or not the Assistant ever slept with a Black Guy is actually somewhat relevant and adds character dynamics to the story, but we don’t see this conversation, we just see the car traveling. Director Steve McQueen, I believe, is a little too talented to have simply not shot the actors having the conversation from the inside of the car, but I do wonder if that’s the case though. Perhaps he shot it, but the footage wasn’t usable or- he just found the edit of the conversation taking place outside the car while we follow it, particularly dynamic. I’m not sure, but it certainly made you notice it though.

Despite making films I admire a great deal, including “12 Years a Slave” and “Shame”, I always felt like it was a little hard to get a read on McQueen’s work. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that he’s an intense filmmaker who likes to tell stories about people who are on the edges of society in some way and their struggles with how to deal with that, or how to get out. In those strange ways, I’m kinda surprised that he hasn’t made a heist movie before. On the same token, that’s a genre that I rarely find myself not enjoying or at least appreciating; the last one I really didn’t get the appeal of was “Sexy Beast”, which does have that memorable performance from Ben Kingsley, but I also argue that that character seems to take away from that movie more than adds anything to it. (Also, in that case, I pretty easily figured out the heist, not necessarily a dealbreaker, but I still kinda found it to be a bit of an annoyance. “Sexy Beast” was a weird mix of genres, but so is “Widows”. There’s a lot going on in this movie, and I don’t just mean in action; there’s details that matter about every character. I appreciate depth but this is one of those films where I wonder if there’s too many details. Or if their details are revealed too early.

There’s a scene where Veronica (Viola Davis), the head widow of a gang of thieves led by her husband Harry (Liam Neeson), brings together the other gangsters wives who died in the same crash, and come to a meeting point to set up a heist on their own. There’s a lot that happens before this, but one of the widows, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), shows up late, in high heels, dolled up, and wearing a expensive skintight gold dress that one girl describes somewhat accurately as a condom. Now, we know why she’s dressed like this before she enters, and we know this character’s backstory into how she feels and is approaching the circumstances that led her to being in this outfit. And I’m not necessarily saying that we shouldn’t have known at least part, but there’s definitely a moment loss. Perhaps we could’ve had her enter and then we flashback to reveal more of her situation?

At this point, I’m redirecting the movie though, but I can’t seem to help it. “Widows” is way too complex and is trying to do way too much. Okay, we have a heist movie with women, that’s interesting enough, but now we add the layer that the women are all the wives of gangsters who were killed on their last mission, and now all of them are trying to figure out what to do with their lives now that their husbands are dead and the lives they had were compromised because of their death, that’s all great stuff. Now there’s this complex District election, with two complex candidates, both of whom are criminals in their own way. Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henre), a street hustler who’s trying to take a rare opportunity to go legitimate while also still ruling the Chicago underworld and Jack Mulligan, a 2nd Generation politician trying to run in his old man's shadow, who was also a corrupt criminal who’s so out-of-touch with the community he ran that the son actually is caught between whether or not to do good and bring up the neighborhood and it’s downtrodden, mostly minority residents and whether or not to continue down his father’s path of taking and ruling power. Both of them, are also caught up in this potential crime in different ways and for different reasons, and I’m only just beginning. There’s the single women struggling with grief and figuring out how to get on with the world and explore those options outside of this heist, there’s other tertiary characters and there lives, and there’s the past that’s caught up into this, including violent confrontations with the police that we see in flashback, so we’ve this crime caught up on a personal, political, societal, and economic issues and that’s before we get into all the twists, turns, double turns, and reveals that this movie has. There’s minutia about the history of the Chicago District boundary lines that are incredibly important in this movie, and it’s like the thirtieth thing that’s of note. That shouldn’t be a negative, but it is. Normally, I like movies where you have to pay attention to get every detail that matters, that don’t bonk you over the head with the obvious and simplistic, but the more you dive into this movie’s complexity, the more I just want this to get simplified.

The movie’s script was co-written by Gillian Flynn, the screenwriter/author behind “Gone Girl”, now I liked that film a lot, and that film also runs into this issues where things are more complex as it seems, and that movie is essentially a con or a heist movie to a certain degree as well, but there’s also relief in that film as well, important issues get revealed periodically that help the viewer relax a bit when it comes to some of these larger issues and themes that that film dives into. This is such a dense movie, even the few lighthearted moments there were just had me begging for this film to turn into “Ladron Que Roba a Ladron”, or something lighter. In another context I might call this richness, but it’s just dense in how layered it is.

I guess that means I’m recommending it, despite all this criticism. I mean, I can’t outright pan the movie for having too much to say, I just wish it tried to say all this in a different way. But I can’t take away from that too much, plus, despite this is a well-made movie, even with some questionable editing and directing choices, at least they’re interesting ones. And the performances are top notch. I’m so used to seeing Viola Davis play great tough female characters that have a giant stick up their ass that I can’t imagine anybody playing them better. There’s several good performances though. Daniel Kaluuya, in particular, shows incredible range as a vicious gangster who’s the Joey Zaza to Jamal’s Michael Corleone. Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon and Garrett Dillahunt I’d single out as well for playing key roles, Cynthia Erivo also has a strong role that seems like it’s at the corner of the screen at first, but becomes important later. She’s the run given the McQueen running handheld running down the street motif that he did with Michael Fassbender in “Shame” that worked to great effect, and it has an even better affect here. The parts are far more than it’s whole but the parts separate are really interesting. This is another one of those movies that could be a test subject in a film criticism class where you’d instruct the class to write both a positive and negative review on the film. Perhaps this would be better-suited for a novel or a miniseries that a two-hour movie, where time is taken and the story can be built up more naturally. As it stands, I guess it’s something worth seeing; I wish it had a little bit of levity though. Perhaps it’s not just Ms. Davis that needs that stick taken out of their ass, just a little bit.


THE GUILTY (2018) Director: Gustav Moller


★★★★


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Gustav Moller’s “The Guilty” is one of those ideas that’s so ingenious, you’re legitimately amazed that nobody’s ever thought about it before now. It’s not the first movie to entirely take place, basically over the phone, Steven Knight’s “Locke” beat that out by a few years, and of course there’s the classic variant of this, the golden age classic, “Sorry, Wrong Number”, but a police dispatcher is a job where I suspect these kinds of regular dramas like these play out all the time. Other than that one episode of “Law & Order: SVU”, (If you’ve seen it, you know the one I’m talking about) and I guess there’s probably an old episode or two of “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol” or one of those shows that I seemed to remember taking place through a police dispatcher’s phone call, and I don’t even think I should count those, but other than that, I don’t recall this particular version of this conceit ever being done before. Not to this extent. The dispatcher who we follow the whole movie is Asger (Jakob Cedergen), who’s normally a beat cop but has been recently reassigned to dispatcher duty, although he seems to mostly enjoy it. He traces the calls and locations, tries to sort through what the phone callers are often trying to say without saying, ‘cause a lot of times the people calling are often trying doing something they shouldn’t be doing either.

The case that enthralls Asger involves a young mother named Iben (Jessica Dinnage), who he recognizes has clearly been taken against her will. She’s travelling but she can’t identify the car, or where exactly it’s going, or who’s taken her, not without her kidnapper realizing that she’s calling the police, which he finds out anyway. Eventually, Asger realizes that the woman has two kids who are home alone, and he calls them, to check in and to get any information he can. Her six-year-old Mathilde (Katinka Evars-Jahnsen), who’s scared and worried about her mother and her baby brother Oliver. From there, he manages to find out that it was her father Michael (Johan Olsen) that took the mother. He instructs another officer to break into his house and try to find info on where he might be going, trying to decipher where he might be from the occasional calls that Iben makes to him and tracing the cell tower info, all the while trying to keep everybody safe and alive, if that’s possible.

It’s not an entirely solo onscreen acting performance, dispatchers rarely work alone, especially for the police and despite the hour, there’s a few people working and a few are concerned about Asger for not only this call and his staying late to track it, but also because of his own issues that perhaps had tripped up his judgment. I imagine being a policeman makes it easy to both dismiss some of the troubled people you deal with, as well as impossible to get over others, and that dispatching is basically the same thing, perhaps easier since everything is over the phone and not in person for most, but more jarring and unforgettable for others. 

Cedergren’s performance is critical, and quite strong. It’s appropriately stoic and intense. First-time feature filmmaker Gustav Moller’s directing is nuanced and claustrophobic. It’s quite a visual film for a movie that’s limiting in its scope. One location, barely more than a handful of onscreen actors, and some strong voice work and sound design. It reminds me of "12 Angry Men" in how a first time filmmaker uses limited space. I think I prefer other versions of this kind of claustrophobic narrative, some of the ones I mentioned before strike me as being more powerful, but “The Guilty” is still a helluva of an intense thriller, and a great movie to show young filmmaker how to be visually interesting and create a strong narrative feature with a limited budget and setting.



I AM NOT A WITCH (2018) Director: Rungano Nyoni

★★★


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I know the intent of "I Am Not a Witch", but I'll be bluntly honest, the movie just sorta frustrated me. Weirded me out I guess you can say. I can't quite put my finger on it, the movie describe itself as a "Satirical Feminist Fairy Tale, set in present-day Zambia". Well, that's unique at least. I have no idea, although I suspect that the "satire" part is the major word to pay attention to here, 'cause I doubt Zambia is still like this, or if it ever resembled it. 

The debut feature from Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni, the movie begin with a girl spilling water that she's carrying hom. A little eight-year-old girl, named Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is charged with witchcraft because of it, and some other accounts of her behavior, mostly in dreams. This ia a common accusation here, so much so that all the witches are brought together, and then a spool of rope is tied to their back, and they can't break the rope or go behind the length of the spool. If they break the rope, they're informed that they'll be turned into a goat. I'm not sure why this is an acceptable form of witchcraft, but the government officer Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), a wonderful bubbling buffoon of a government official that Gilbert & Sullivan would be proud of, takes his job seriously. At least, he does when's he's not being informed of the local witches, he's generally relaxing his oversized body into a relaxing bath. The witches are also mostly for show, i guess. There's tourists who observe them. It's clear that there's a community that believes there are witches, and laws that accompany the process.

At one point, Shula is told to help solve a mystery by trying to determine which local villager stole money. Apparently it's a power that they're supposed to have. One of the older witches tell her about which one to accuse. It's hard to tell how many or who are in on the joke.

I guess I like the movie overall but what I'm wondering is, what exactly is it satirizing. It's clearly making light of something or someone, that's clear. Maybe it's just other parts of the world who suspect Africa is still so primitive and emboldened with ancient mysticism. The movie this reminds me of the most is "The Gods Must Be Crazy", a movie that I consider a bit of a guilty pleasure, but also seems to mostly making fun of our most cliche thoughts of Africa, or it's a movie that actually thinks that; I'm not certain. This movie is smarter than that, but I still feel out of the loop on it, and that just confused me. It's too unique to ignore and it's certainly cinematically memorable. There are some images here that I will never forget. I think it's a strong first feature from a creative and unique young mind, but I'm gonna hold out and wait a little bit for her to get really good in the future. I mean, if this is her first idea, I can't imagine what she comes up with when she comes up with when she's a much more accomplished filmmaker.


LEAN ON PETE (2018) Director: Andrew Haigh

★★★1/2


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Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi) at one point in “Lean on Pete” mentions how the titular horse is a quarterhorse, and that nobody cares about quarterhorses anymore, except perhaps at Los Alamitos, before adding, “But you won’t see me going back to California anytime soon.” I don’t know what major sport people would nowadays refer to as the most, unsavory, for lack of a better word. Most organized sports have some aspects to them that they rather not let the public in on, baseball’s had a few different eras of questionable action, currently it’s probably Human Growth Hormone, PEDs mar football, along with CTE and other side effects of concussions, boxing and MMA at the top levels I suspect is probably more legitimate than it’s ever really been, but getting up to those levels can include several levels of shadiness. For my money though, I’d have to say horse racing has got to be the most unsavory these days. There were a time where I was actually into horse racing a lot, but nowadays I, like most everybody else, only pretend that these animals are aware of their status as “athletes” around the time of the Triple Crown, and even then I don’t even get interested anymore until the Belmont Stakes. I suspect it never really picked up much in Nevada because of our desert landscape doesn’t really suit horse training well, but while horse racing is naturally really regional, for obvious reasons, there is more horse racing on the West coast then people realize. Before Fox Sports Net took over as the main ESPN alternative, there was a local sports channel around in most major cable areas and in Southern Nevada, we used to get Prime Sports, which was Southern California’s version of it. On top of Lakers and Dodgers home games and PAC-10 football or other such sports, they’d air the horse races at Los Alamos. Something they’d air them at Santa Anita too, almost every week they’d do this; like a half-hour highlight show of the local races, and I remember how most of the races were quarterhorses races, horseracing jargon for sprinters. Sometimes those races would last maybe ten or fifteen seconds at the most. They’re big races in Southern California and literally nowhere else and I can understand why. If you’re betting the favorite that day and he gets a bad jump, you’re basically shit outta luck; and there is much more beauty and majesty in races that go at least long enough for the horses to go around a turn or two.

That’s part of why I’ve been playing close attention to the strange circumstances of horses constantly dying at Santa Anita recently. Normally at a track like that, you’d have to put down a horse due to injury, maybe three times a year at the most, but Santa Anita has had seven times that over the past 15 months or so, and after multiple investigations and closing of the stables and reopening of the stables, and closing again, the damnedest thing is that, nobody can figure out why the startling increase in horse deaths. As of right now, the best anybody can figure is that it’s just a bizarre anomaly; these injuries and subsequent need to put these horses down because of them, just sorta all happened in a short period of time. That said, I suspect it’s a bizarre anomaly, that’s probably the result of years of training and pushing horses to go beyond their normal limits, to training, breeding and making animals race for the pleasure of humans, often for just a $2 bet on who win, place, or shows.

Like I said, I think horse racing has been pretty unsavory for years, especially in the pockets where it doesn’t get as much regular press attention. “Don’t treat him like a pet; he’s just a horse,” the main character Charley (Charlie Plummer) is warned on multiple occasions by Del and by Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) one of Del’s jockeys, of course, we know that’s exactly what’s not gonna end up happening though.  Del is a bit of an unsavory trainer, an aging trainer who’s become dulled and demystified by years of working in the bottom rungs of horse racing on the West Coast, his best days long past him. After one race where the troubled titular horse wins, he’s tested for PEDs. He isn’t on any, none that are testable anyway, but Bonnie does make it a point to somehow hide the buzzer somewhere where it couldn’t be found; I’ll be damned to know how or where. Bonnie’s another rare breed; there are some big female jockeys around, but I am a bit surprised there aren’t more of them out there, but I suspect that’s a Men’s Club that’s been around a long time and is hard for a young woman to break into. Being a jockey is harder than it looks anyway, as Bonnie explains the multiple severe injuries she’s had over the years. Collapsed lungs, fractured hips, and still being pressed to know if she can still mount in the 7th race. Even rarer, she's a second-generation female jockey, something I've literally never heard of before. 

These characters alone would make an interesting movie to follow. This world is interesting, and soon, it’s all Charley will have, and he won’t have that after a while. He lives alone with his father Ray (Travis Fimmel), until his father is attacked by one angry husband of some girl he’s slept with too many. While Charley is out helping Del and Bonnie at a Fairground circuit race, Ray dies in the hospital. Charley has an aunt, Margy (Alison Elliott) in Wyoming who his father hasn’t talked to in years and won’t give out the number for. Eventually, after Pete loses his last race, Charley takes Pete and starts heading out to find her, or somewhere else to go.

From here on in, the movie is, episodic in nature. I’m told it’s based on a popular novel and I can believe it. I kept thinking about some other kinds of children’s lit that were about lonely teenagers, usually runaways or orphans who were looking for,-, well somewhere comfortable to live, or just getting the hell away from where they were. Those tended to be episodic too. I guess the most noteworthy actor in this section is Steve Zahn, who plays drunk he meets at a homeless shelter who takes him into his camper with his girlfriend Martha (Rachel Perrell Fosket); I know some people who these two remind me of in the worst ways. He does run into some nicer folks along the way. He has a sad but sad-but-touching moment with Laurie (Tayeh Hartley) an overweight girl who’s just berated and treated lousily by Mr. Kendall (Bob Olin) who I believe is an older relative, perhaps an Uncle or Grandfather. He asks her why he lets her do that to her, and she has a knowing response that feels as much like a warning to him as it is a truthful observation about the nature of our lives at times.

“Lean on Pete” was written and directed by Andrew Haigh, the British director behind "45 Years" and "Weekend"; he also directed most of the TV show, "Looking". I'm still trying to get a bit of a hold on him as a filmmaker, but I can certainly understand why he'd be interested in this material. As a gay filmmaker, even if it isn't a traditional narrative of the ostracized homeless gay teen, it's never pointed out whether or not Charley is gay, although there is something of an insinuation by his father, who seems to be overly interested in making sure that he's interested in girls; even ones that she just slept with. The big takeaway from me is Charley Plummer; I’ve seen this kid in a few other films, but nothing like this. This is the kind of role that really shows his range. He’s a kid who’s observant and smart about his circumstances, and tries to seek ways out of it, but still ends up trapped by his own youth and damned by those circumstances changing around him. It would’ve been nice to see Charley perhaps find a way to stick around and go into horse training, but I guess it just wasn’t in the cards.


CALL HER GANDA (2018) Director: PJ Raval

★★★★1/2


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On the surface, the case of the murder of Jennifer Laude seems simple. Jennifer, a trans woman who was originally born Jeffrey, was killed by a U.S. Marine named Scott Pemberton after they shared a night out at a club. She was choked to death after he found out that she was trans; it’s a story that’s not particularly unique and one that’s been constantly repeated in one form or another several times over the years, especially in America. It’s an open-and-shut case frankly, or at least it should be, but if anybody follows LGBT news around the country, you’d know how often incidents like this don’t end up with justice.

However, this wasn’t in America. This happened in Ologanda City, in the The Philippines. The Philippines has a complicated history with the Western world. Without going into too much detail, the nation was technically under the reign of Spain until it was briefly a U.S. Colony that was won by America after the Spanish-American War. It’s usually written in the history books that we basically just gave them independence shortly thereafter, but there was more than that. There was conflict and rebellion that occurred, but there was inevitably an agreement that gave the nation it’s independence, with the caveat that United States military bases would permanently be stationed and able to peruse there. That tradeoff also included a weird and grotesque agreement, which states that no U.S. Military servicemen could be charged or convicted of any crime on Filipino soil.

No, seriously, that’s in the agreement, and has been and remained since 1898. Basically, the U.S. military is allowed to do anything they want to the country and their people and they wouldn’t be charged. In fact, the investigation, if there is any, is put into the hands of the U.S. Embassy, and yes, this is exactly as fucked up as it sounds. The Philippines, like many places where there’s been a prolonged U.S. military presence, has become a major sex tourism destination over the years. I’ll leave the history of the exploitation of the Filipino female body for someone else, but the trans population has also become engrossed it in, often as the only way for them to survive.

This wasn’t always the case with The Philippines which, unique to that area of the world, because of Spanish and American colonialization over the centuries has a distinctly Catholic presence as well. Before that, it used to be accepted that people of trans gender were usually regarded highly in society, often they were considered the spiritual leaders of the group, until they became ostraciszed from that role, being labeled as various forms of others. (Other countries in the Far East that weren’t poisoned by the Catholic well also have similar respects and traditions of the like, but The Philippines, like I mentioned, this archipelago has had a weird history.)

The movie follows the trial the best they can, the trial was relegated to a single year, giving preference to the date at which time Sgt. Pemberton’s discharged, according to the VFA, Visiting Forces Agreement, the one that set up this ridiculous rule. It also looks at her family, particularly her mother as she both grieves and fights for her daughter, the activist attorney who took on the case of prosecuting Pemberton, and through the perspective of Buzzfeed journalist Meredith Talusan, a trans woman herself who documented the public and private outcry over her death and through the trial and now the appeal process. He was convicted, the first visiting U.S. soldier ever to be convicted in a Filipino court. In that time, Deteurte became President of The Philippines, the Trump-like dictator behind over 7,000 civilian deaths due to his “death squads” who are going out to eradicate the drug trade in the country. The Philippines’s history is not ending, however, he is supporting the Laude family who the U.S. has repeated tried to buy out in order to convince them to drop the charges and release Pemberton to U.S. custody. The visiting troops has been limited and put on hold, costing the communities that served them ironically enough, sending much of the country’s port cities into an economic depression.

Still though, even those disgusted with Detuerte’s human rights abuses and other outlandish actions, a lot of people in the country support the idea of eradicating the VFA, and disallowing the U.S. and other countries soldier to make The Philippines even a semi-permanent stop for visiting military forces, and honestly I don’t blame them there. It’s an outdated practice and agreement that harkens back to colonial past and an imperialist present that the country never wanted to begin with and shouldn’t be forced to recognize either. Perhaps it’s for the best for both sides that the U.S. not have much of a presence in The Philippines at this time, at least until Deteurte is ousted if/when that ever happens, but for the time being the political and societal complications and implications and nuances of this case are still going to pepper the strained relationship we have with them and them with us.

And then there’s Jennifer Laude. There’s little home video footage and we don’t get to hear her words, although she did once proclaim that “My life has value.” She looks a confident, exotic and strong-willed young woman who could’ve done anything she set her mind to. She’s often regarded as the leader of the group of friends and sex workers she was with, and her passing is still sorely missed by them and her family. We don’t get enough of her than we probably should’ve, then she probably deserved. She did not die in vain though, and when I consider other LGBT victims, locally and around the world, it’s sad to think about how rare such a tragedy is.

“Call Her Ganda” is a powerful documentary that’s details and reveals all the microcosmic details of this one singular case and sorts through the several layers involved in it. It’s a powerful, excellent and much-needed documentary about a case that needs to be more ever-present in all of our minds. I can’t to the future of the LGBT community and how they’re treated or the people or governments of either nation or their futures, but I’ll say this, at some point, I do hope that VFA is torn to shreds and placed in the dustbin of history where it belongs. That said, I also think there’s room to make a new arrangement, one that doesn’t allow for visiting forces to simple slaughter a country of its resources, including its people, and get off scot-free because of what country they’re from. Of course, the irony of making such a hypothetical arrangement with a dictator who slaughters his countries people with death squads without repercussions, doesn’t escape me however.


MCQUEEN (2018) Director: Ian Bonhote; Co-Director: Peter Ettedgui

★★★★★




I’ve seen a few documentaries in recent years on some iconic fashion designers. None of them have stayed with me particularly long afterwards, even though I generally appreciate the films fine as well as appreciate the subjects they profile. That was basically my expectations going into “McQueen’ as well, this latest biodocumentary on an iconic designer, but it became clear pretty quickly that this was no ordinary legendary designer and that this was no ordinary biodoc about him.

I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of fastion, but from what I’ve curtailed over-the-years, the appropriate comparison that some might make to Alexander McQueen to someone n film would be, R.W. Fassbinder. It’s not a perfect comparison; they do share similar features, although Fassbinder is of course German while McQueen is British, purportedly by way of Scottish ancestory, but there’s some similarities in their backgrounds, both gay for instance, both came up very young and became prolific really quickly and pumped out work fairly regularly, but mostly I think the comparison is apt because of their form of passion for their art, as well as the ways they indulged in excess. McQueen seems to be the epitome of the excesses of the fashion industry meeting with the limits of the artistry of the medium back in the nineties. If you’ve ever seen Robert Altman’s underrated masterpiece, “Pret-a-Porter (aka Ready-to-Wear)” about the industry, you’ll suspect that many of the ideas for the clothes and the productions of the fashion shows they express were probably inspired by some of McQueen’s daring ideas and collections. Also, him and Fassbinder also used lots of drugs and through their work embraced both their most passionate and most viscerally embalming images in their work. They also both died incredibly young, arguably in the prime of their carers; in his case, it was suicide.  

Alexander McQueen came from an abusive poor home on the rougher sides of England. If you didn’t know that his passion was designing clothes and ran into him, you’d think he was the kind of gangster bloke that you’d find in some Guy Ritchie film. Instead, he got some tailor apprenticeship, first locally, and then all throughout Europe before he started scraping together enough of a ragtag crew to put together some shows of his own. And I mean mean-rag, and I mean artistic and daring shows for the fashion industry. Another good comparison to him might be Andy Warhol, at least based on the way he practiced, but his inspirations came from dark places. It wasn’t until he took a job at Givanchy that he started to slowly slip out from the utmost avant-garde areas and begin to produce clothes that were, for lack of a better word, wearable. That’s not an insult or even a criticism; they were among other things, not clothes that were capable of being mass produced; he was putting on a shows, shows that challenge our preconceptions of fashion and art. Sometimes there were barely fabric used in many of the outfits; sometimes there were barely clothes or even covering at all. Sometimes there were robots.

All of his work is just some of the most expressive displays of emotion I’ve ever seen in art, much less fashion. The movie cuts between these striking scenes and images of his fashion shows as well as with interviews and footage of McQueen and several of his friends and closest family, the movie continues to return to this startling image of a-, I’m not even sure how to describe it, it’s like a golden skull that’s periodically filled with flowers or eagles or other birds or spilled with blood or designed with incredibly detail all over…- it was a go-to motif and image of his and by the end of the movie, it’s just an empty skull that ridden himself out, like his mind has given everything it could’ve possibly done to the world of fashion. I don’t know why this is so powerful, but it makes sense, all his images are powerful. He designed clothes like a director somebody said, and yeah, he did, but I think it’s even more powerful than that even. Like the idea of pigeon-hole him into a medium is simply not enough.

The key to these artist biodocs to me is to not simply show the greatness of the art and dive into the artist but to give the audience a powerful appreciation of them, how they worked, how they thought, what their lives were like, etc. etc., basically the ability to sink the power of the artist into our skulls so vividly that they’re simply not capable of being forgotten, to not just document but to imprint on our mind and boy do I appreciate Alexander McQueen right now, in that way; it’s been a long while since I’ve seen a documentary do that. Credit to Director Ian Bonhote and Co-Director and Co-Writer of the film Peter Ettedgui, I don’t know if people are gonna fully comprehend or understand just how amazing this film is at this; you may have to, like me have seen several similar docs on other artists, in fashion and outside of them outside of the medium to really understand how good this film is. Almost anybody can make a good movie about a great artist like this, especially if the artist’s material is worth documenting, that alone, I usually give most of these sorts of films a pass, but this is a special one. Maybe it helps that my knowledge of “McQueen” was limited going in, but this movie made damn sure I wouldn’t forget him. This is a really special documentary. It combines the care and passion for the subject, with the craft to be able to tell his story this well.  


TEA WITH THE DAMES (2018) Director: Roger Michell

★★★


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Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Eileen Atkins. I know this is a most contrived of documentaries, but I don’t care that much, and I don’t think anybody else will. They drink more than tea and their tongues are sharply in cheek, as the four dames get together for this Roger Mitchell documentary, to just be ask questions and talk with each other about, well, the usual with these kinds of movies. Their lives, their histories, the films and plays and television shows they’ve all worked on, any other assorted memories that get brought up, either naturally or through obvious contrivances. It’s the kind of documentary where the camera crew and the P.A. and others are constantly moving around and are just as much foregrounds as anybody else. It’s about the equivalent of Letterman or Carson or whomever making direct references to the guy holding up the cue cards or some other scattered members of the crew. I’m not complaining or criticizing any of these aspects or dynamics, this isn’t a movie that gonna be dwelled down by criticism; it’s cinephile candy.

Well, I guess it’s a particular subsect of it, those who are fascinated with the members of the British pop culture who have titles such as these. I don’t know how big a deal it is now or not; I remember how huge it was to start calling them Sir Elton John or Sir Paul McCartney when those rock stars received their knighthoods. I think it was also unusual in that case because they were rock’n’roll musicians. At this point, it does feel like any British actress that’s been around forever will inevitably become a Dame. I can imagine the day when the internet freaks out in ten or twenty years when we have to start calling her Dame Gwyneth Paltrow.

The title does seem to suit these women though. I have a hard time not calling some of them Dame, especially Judi Dench, who everyone lovingly calls Jude. Honestly, after some of the health issues I’ve heard that she’s struggled through recently, I’m surprised she still works as regularly and as much as she does. I always adore her of course, but Maggie Smith might be the really fascinating one for me. I think to most people my age, she seems to have been playing the old snobbish British woman forever, but I’m always amazed at how striking she looks normally. She looks like the youngest and healthiest of the group even though her career is just as long as the rest. It’s startling; she in particular is known for rarely giving interviews and notoriously not showing up to most award shows, although she does some red carpets and I saw her there accepting a few of the awards at the end montage they did, not for either of her Oscars though. I really do need to dive into her earliest work. I really need to dive into all of these Dames’ works. Joan Plowright seems the most aloof at the moment. Much of the talk with her revolved around talking about being married to Laurence Olivier for much of her career, and the rest talk about how they were genuinely afraid around him, mostly because of his status of high regard. Honestly, I haven’t watched enough Olivier, but I was certainly caught offguard when the movie showed clips of him in “Othello”, in blackface. Really bad blackface. Well, that’s gonna be an interesting one when I finally get around to it. Atkins, I also know very little about, unfortunately.

As to the quality of the film, I’m recommending it but it’s not a serious in-depth bio on any of these women, although we do see some rare footage and early clips of them, it’s especially cool seeing some of their theater work, especially when they’re so young. Tea began outside, and then whether brought it in, and I guess technically it’s just this side of being one of those reunion episodes of TV shows where all the actors from the classic series come back and pretend to come with the appropriate memories from the old show they were on to reflect back upon. These dames have often worked with each other and are familiar enough to have some lovely stories with each other. I supposed this is a film that’s better in theory than execution, it’s barely eighties long, but how often do you get to see all these great actresses together. Gene Siskel often famously noted that one of his tests of a movie is whether or not the film was more entertaining than all the actors sitting around a dinner table. Well, this isn’t quite dinner, and I probably would prefer to see all these Dames playing some roles in a movie, but I wouldn’t say it’s entertaining enjoy them all having tea in an afternoon, surrounded by a small film crew as they talk amongst and about themselves again.


HEARTS BEAT LOUD (2018) Director: Brett Haley

★★★1/2


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My mother described “Hearts Beat Loud” as being, kinda like “Once” but not as good. I get what she means. I hold “Once” up to a pretty high standard, as does my Mom, but that said, failing to measure up to “Once”, that still makes for a pretty good movie.

This variation is a father/daughter story. The father, Frank (Nick Offerman) is closing his vintage record store in Red Hook while his daughter, Sam (Kiercey Clemons) is about to go off to Med School at UCLA. Before that though, Frank coaxes Sam into a jam session. Frank’s was a former musician himself once upon a time, both solo and in a band with his wife who passed away yeas ago from a bicycle accident. Sam’s hellbent on med school, even taking AP classes during her Summer, but she is a talented musician herself and the inspiration caught her that day and her and her Dad recorded a little song during that session.

Frank ends up posting it online and it soon ends up on Spotify as apart of a New Indie Release collection. Under the name, We’re Not a Band, they start to play and write a little bit more together while both their lives are in constant flux. With Frank closing his store, he begins kindling a closer friendship with his landlord Leslie (Toni Collette) who partially wants to keep the store open and offers to invest, and also might be eyeing a relationship with Frank. Meanwhile, Sam is also in a Summer fling relationship with Rose (Sasha Lane) a struggling artist herself who is just so sweet and romantic, you’re just screaming at the movie to push these two together more, even if it’s only for the rest of the Summer, or maybe not, as the band starts to get known enough to begin getting some small offers and they both start finding inspiration to pour into their music.

There’s some music theory talk, how a line doesn’t have to make sense in order for a song to work, including an inspiring one about why the Backstreet Boys “I Want It That Way” works despite the song never explicating saying what “That” actually is. (I kinda have to reluctantly agree on this; as much as I hated that era of music at the time, and yes, I made fun of that song in particular too, but yeah, in hindsight Backstreet Boys were pretty good to be honest. NSYNC still sucks though; I won’t back off that one and I don’t care that Justin Timberlake is still big.) Or whether or not every song is essentially a love song. Leave it to the same father to use the Backstreet Boys in one argument to combat that one with a Butthole Surfers song. Mostly, the movie is about these two people who are at a crossroads in life but are still managing to try to figure out the best ways to spend their last possible few moments together as father and daughter, and what to do after that ends. It’s a lovely, touching movie. There’s also a couple extra details, Blythe Danner plays one of those characters who’s got Movie Alzheimer’s that frankly I thought could’ve been cut, as much as I always seeing Blythe Danner in anything. Ted Danson is also in this as a former actor who became a stoner bartender; I know it’s a little suspect to have a bartender character played by Danson, but he’s good in this role as Frank’s friend, and frankly in my mind, he’s playing what that actor character of his in “Three Men and a Baby” inevitably turned into. (Actually, that would be an interesting movie idea to do now.) He’s having fun at his age now. Also Sasha Lane is quickly becoming one of my favorite actress. There is a presence about her that’s undeniable.

“Hearts Beat Loud” suffers only in comparison to the better recent movies that it can be compared to. The film was directed and co-written by Brett Haley who I haven't been overly-impressed with until now, having been disappointed with both his previous features "The Hero", which I'm reviewing on this post too, and "I'll See You In My Dreams", but I like the subtle story he’s telling here. It’s a modern-day story about the music world on top of everything else, how the way we listen and understand music is changing and how it’s much easier to produce and publish your own material. If this story were told, even a decade earlier, much less two or three, it would become a sprawling emotional road drama about a fake father and daughter band that we’re supposed to believe is big enough to matter in this world. This little band is big enough for Red Hook and not much more and that’s all it needs to be. The climatic performance isn’t in front of millions, it’s in a front of, maybe a dozen people who are there mainly to buy the cheap vinyl that most of them would’ve normally just bought on Amazon, if they were gonna buy records at all. I like that contrast; there’s a sweetness and a tragedy to it, about how music has changed, but how it still has that way of affecting us deeply.


LAST FLAG FLYING (2017) Director: Richard Linklater

★★★★1/2

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Richard Linklater should make any list of the greatest filmmakers of our time. This is something that I feel needs to be mentioned as often as possible regarding him, since he’s been an unusually easy director to overlook. He’s not known for big splash blockbusters, although he can do those if he wanted. His films rarely if ever get the awards consideration they should.  He’s known as an experimenter, who will be the first to try things like animation. He’s fascinated by art of all kinds, and he fascinated with the minutia of life and the passing of time and how the two often interact and intersect with each other. There’s a poetry to most of his films that’s hard to quantify, unlike say Jim Jarmusch is directly inspired by his love and interest in poetry, Linklater seems to have a poetic view of the world that allows for him to see the fragility and quaintness of our emotional selves. It’s not simply that he seems to observe and records moments in time but how he does it. The appeal of his "Last Flag Flying" script, co-written by the novel's author, is very obvious to me. it's the story of three soldiers, two marines and one Navy Man, who were in Vietnam. It's thrity years later and they're reuining after one of their sons is killed in Iraq. 

Three men, who caused havoc and raised hell in their days in one unjust war, now have to go and bury one of their own in another unjust war. Larry (Steve Carell) or "Doc" as his fellow soldiers know him, drives down from Portsmouth, New Hampshire where's he's remained since being sent to the Naval prison there in the '70s to go to Dover to pick up his son. For those who don't know this, back in '70s, the pictures and images of the Vietnam War were shown on TV every night, including the returning soldiers who arrive at the Dover Airstrip, but the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars did not have that, after a Bush proclamation to block out cameras and the press at the time. This was a big difference between these wars and promptly has a lot to do with why the Iraq and Afghanistan ones lasted as long as they did. Anyway, on the way, Larry finds Sal (Bryan Cranston) who's still very much a rugged excessive marine as ever; he somehow maintains and owns a bar, and Richard (Laurence Fishburne) someone who was just as excessive in his marine days, but has evolved and is now a popular local pastor. 

On the way, we have a typical road trip, with several of the "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" travails, for instance, once they decide to take the casket themselves as oppose to have the military deliver it, they have to figure out how to get it to Portsmouth. They also now have a current Marine, Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) who's been ordered to follow the casket and make sure that he's buried in his uniform. Along the way, there's talk and discussion, about each other, about both wars, about each one's atrocities, their owns. It's really an acting clinic. Three of our best actors actors given great roles to play. 

The film is emotional, poetic mosaic of where we were in 2003 and where we were thirty years earlier. Reflections on time and how circular the world can be. It's pure Linklater, pure adult Linklater. I totally get why he would adapt this and frankly it's a critical story. It's not the great or newest or most profound narrative, but that's the point. it's beauty lies in it's simplicity. Get three good actors, and have them confront and discuss things amongst each other. The only other movie that this reminds me of is "Still the Drums", a movie I doubt anybody's seen that's also about three soldier reuniting decades after their exploits in Vietnam.  This is a much more high-budget and fun movie, but still sad and reflective in the appropriate ways. I prefer "Last Flag Flying", it's a beautiful, funny, emotional film about the real, personal effects of war. For a country, for a father and for the soldiers who fight. Same old story, told many times over of course. Now it's told with cell phones and still told well. 


FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (2017) Director: Paul McGuigan

★★★★

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Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) is one of those old Hollywood starlet names who’s fame and much of her career is slowly being written out and forgotten in the history books. There’s a lot of names like that as years past and their movies get forgotten and bigger more iconic names get remembered more vividly. I’ve been watching a lot of old reruns of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”, and it’s startling how often Raquel Welch’s name is brought up as the premiere example of the modern sex symbol of the time, whether she’s a guest on the show or not. It’s weird, I just never think of her in those terms much, but at one point she was. I suspect in the future, people will look back at someone from my generation like Pamela Anderson in the same regard. Of course some times they end up becoming Marilyn Monroe for one reason or another, something that Gloria’s mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) a big actress in her own right in her time mentions it offhandedly that she wasn’t as good as her. That’s not true at all, Grahame was a better actress; one of those great femme fatales who struggled once movies started transitioning almost exclusively to color, but it’s true that you forget about her sometimes; I’ve even written a Canon of Film post on her one of her best films and performances, in Nicholas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place”; she even married both Ray and later, Ray’s-, well kid, but I hardly mention her in my write-up. 

http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2013/10/canon-of-film-in-lonely-place.html

I also don't mention her in my Canon of Film post of "It's a Wonderful Life". That’s Humphrey Bogart’s film in my mind more than Grahame’s. Even her Oscar-winning performance in “The Bad and the Beautiful” is rarely brought up much anymore and if it is, it’s usually in the context of her winning for the wrong movie. (She should've won for "The Big Heat", which btw, is also in my Canon of Film.

http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2018/09/canon-of-film-big-heat.html) 

 “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”, based on the memoir by Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) chronicles the last big love of Grahame’s life, a young struggling Liverpoolian actor she meets when she’s staying in an apartment for a play in England. She’s had four husbands and kids, it’s the late ‘70s, and she’s still in fairly good shape. She’s athletic enough to still dance, even disco. She’s got that vibrant, cooing voice still, and remains seductive. Peter and Gloria begin having a whirlwind May-December romance near the end of her life They even travel together to L.A. and New York. At this point, Grahame’s more name than star and in some ways known for being infamous then being famous for her off-stage behavior.

By the end of her life, she suffered silently with breast cancer that inevitably spread to her stomach after she only got radiation and not chemo with the first batch. “I can’t work if I lose all my hair,” she observed. After collapsing backstage at a London production of “The Glass Menagerie”, Peter takes her into his home to recover, frustrating his family, his mother and father (Julie Walters and Kenneth Graham) all of whom suspect correctly that she is sicker than she lets on. Essentially, Gloria’s chosen this as her place to die and doesn’t want to inform her friends and family as to just how serious her illness is. “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is a unique tale of love and death, of how a young Liverpool guy had more than a fleeting moment with a Hollywood starlet, one romance that occurred during a time when she probably felt more human than she ever did. It’s a good movie and Bening in particular gives a great performance. Director Paul McGuigan, who's usually more well-known for his television work, creates a dreamy, ethereal world for a romance that clashes beautifully the old-time glamour of Hollywood with the working class streets of Liverpool, yet both can seem to run about and exist peacefully in. At least, for a fleeting moment.


ATOMIC BLONDE
(2017) Director: David Leitch


★★★

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Well, it’s not the first time Charlize Theron’s played a lesbian killer…. Alright, got that joke out of the way. (Although seriously, those who haven’t seen “Monster” yet, should really go see “Monster”) I’ve heard some people call “Atomic Blonde” a female James Bond movie; I’ve heard a few other descriptors of it, mostly praise, although I’ll admit to being skeptical at first considering the film promoted itself on being from the same filmmaker behind “John Wick”. (Sigh) Oh, coincidentally, the big rebuttal I’ve gotten from my declaration about how the “John Wick” movies praise has eluded me, and that they’re just simply hitmen movies is that the action sequences are some of the top-notch ones Hollywood’s produced, and I had one good friend of mine compare the franchise positively to “The Raid” movies franchise. Well, I hated “The Raid” movies as well, although the “John Wick” movies do have more plot and story. See, that’s the thing, action in of itself, or for the sake of action, is generally boring to me and I don’t have much interest in it. I need more for a movie to be compelling, if it isn’t, then you’re basically just watching a video game and you’re not even playing it.

So, is “Atomic Blonde” that way as well? Eh, well, no, there’s definitely a more interesting story involved, there’s also style with the narrative approach, and frankly I found the action itself, far more interesting in this film, which,- yeah Charlize Theron puts herself through a lot, including one sequence that seem like one take that seems to go from the streets of Berlin to up and down a building and back to the streets, all the while, she’s fighting for her life and protecting an asset named Spyglass while simultaneously killing off several would be assassins. It’s a great buildup and reveal to why Lorraine (Theron) is so beat up and bruised all over at the beginning of this movie as the majority of the film is told in flashback.

Still, though I couldn’t help but notice some of the issues with the narrative. For a cold war narrative that takes place at the time of the falling of the Berlin Wall, I couldn’t help but feel the soundtrack was a little too obvious, cliche and noticeable, although I’ll take any excuse to hear Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”. Or the fact that in a triage of British, American and Russian craftwork being done at all angles by everyone involved that the lone female French narrative was one of the most cliché characters out there, and yes, she’s often not wearing many clothes, and she uses sex as a weapon, not that she isn’t successful at it, but I think even Tarantino made fun of that cliché if I remember my “Pulp Fiction” correctly.

Plot-wise, and bare with me 'cause this is confusing, the movie takes place mostly in Germany, in and around the week or two before the Berlin Wall is supposed to come down. Lorraine is investigating the death of an MI-6 agent, while also seeking out Satchel, a major Russian double agent that's undermining MI-6 and might've been the man behind the agent's murder. There's also a list of double agents that a Stasi defector named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) is trying to trade in order to defect across the border. After that trying to explain and detail the twists and turns and reveals upon double-reveals is basically just impossible. The movie might as well be "The Big Sleep" in how circular and insipid the story becomes. It's the kind of movie where you almost wonder if spy agencies only exists so that other spies can constantly turn on other spies.

Of course, I think that’s part of the fun of the movie, although I couldn’t help but think about this as being a bit on the Conservative propaganda side too. For those who don’t know, Reagan had almost nothing to do with the Berlin wall falling down, and you look up the actual story of how that broke down quickly, it’s actually more absurd than people realize, although David Hasselhoff actually was in town at the time, so they got that right. It’s an interesting fictional narrative about the ending of the Cold War however.

I’m a bit torn on this one. I think the story had about, one, maybe two twists too many ultimately, but it did keep me interested, and that’s usually enough for me to appreciate a pop-action thriller, but there’s some missed opportunities here to really subvert the genre. I’m gonna recommend ‘cause it’s mostly well-done and despite the confusing plot that’s constantly double-backing upon itself, I wasn’t nearly as confused as I could’ve been, but “Atomic Blonde” does leave me a bit cold despite the coolness of it’s ice queen protagonist.


HOSTILES (2017) Director: Scott Cooper

★★

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“Hostiles” begins with a scene that feels like it was edited out of “The Searchers” for being too violent and portraying Native Americans in too negative a light. It’s startling and harrowing and frankly I’m a bit amazed that a sequence like this would be shown like this in these times. That said, I do know that while yeah, we pretty much screwed over the Native Americans and whatever vengeance we get from them we probably deserve, I do know that not all Native American were exactly peaceful tribesman either. I have no idea if the Comanche did stuff like that, but I wouldn’t be surprised one way or another of the accuracy of such events occurred. Apparently, the narrative to “Hostiles” is based on a real incident at the tail end of the days of the Wild West. The Indian Wars are a bit underreported in most history books, but at this time, it’s 1892, the West is starting to get settled and we’ve imprisoned several of their more leaders and other Native Americans. One of the leaders of the Cheyenne that’s imprisoned is Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) but he’s come down with cancer, and as the dying leader of a tribe, he’s requested and received him and his family’s released, to go up to Montana and return to his tribe from his prison at Fort Berringer, in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. Capt. Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) an aged veteran of the Indian wars himself, and has committed just as many brutal mistreatments of the Native Americans as Yellow Hawk has done against White Men, is the one hired to lead a team on the journey.

The journey becomes complicated, originally when they run into the newly-widowed Rosalie (Rosamund Pike). She’s still in shocked and is accesses the bodies of her dead family and burned house. Comanches. They’re in the area and they’re hostiles towards both White Men and the other tribes. That’s around the time when Yellow Hawk’s chains are taken off and him and his family start working with Blocker to defend. After that, the movie eventually becomes, one burial after another, sometimes a mass burial. There’s a lot of dead, for several different reasons. This movie matches up with “A Million Ways To Die In the West” in terms of body count. It’s not even just murder though, at one point, one of the soldiers, Sgt. Malloy (Ryan Bingham) just starts raping and attacking the women. They also pick up another prisoner, Wills (Ben Foster) who’s also a veteran of the bloodiest of Native American atrocities; like Joe, he was at Wounded Knee. He’s also killed a whole family with an axe without provocation.

I have several issues with the movie. The violence isn’t necessarily one of them, but I certainly think it was a bad idea to show that opening sequence of the Comanche. Mainly because the movie isn’t about fighting the Comanche or anything; they’re apart of the story, but it’s not necessary to show their destructiveness. The movie could’ve worked by showing this sequence as a flashback, or even just showing the results of their actions; those scenes are effective. Besides that, they’re just one obstacle of many. The best western narratives about these long, dangerous trips know this. Look at, either version of “True Grit” for instance, they’re episodic, “Hostiles” has the narrative for it, but it’s so bogged down it doesn’t read right. The one African-American soldier. Woodson (Jonathan Majors) doesn’t die, but he does get shot and has to leave the team. Him and Blocker has an emotional bedside chat, but all I kept thinking was, “Who the hell is this guy, and why do I care about their relationship?” There’s a French soldier, Desjardins (Timothee Chalamet) who asks why he was selected for this mission? We never get an answer, but I think he was just there to die at a certain point in the movie. He might as well have been wearing a red “Star Trek” uniform.

This is all nothing btw, compared to the real issue, the Native American family. I doubt they have more than 250 spoked, in Cheyenne or in English between all of them. Now the story didn’t have to be told from a Native American perspective; but it would’ve been a little nice to actually see scenes or sequences where we understand the connections that Blocker, Rosalie make with Yellow Hawk and the rest of his family. I mean, I’m always happy to see Adam Beach and Q’Orianka Kilcher get roles, those are two of the most horribly underused actors around, but how much did they do here? This movie feels old, like it should’ve been an old John Ford movie. How exactly does Blocker know so much Cheyenne come to think of it; probably the same unknown way that Ethan Edwards seemed to know Apache once upon a time.

The film was written and directed by Scott Cooper, the guy behind “Crazy Heart”, the film that earned Jeff Bridges his Oscar for playing a run-down drunk country-western singer. I liked that film a lot as well as his previous feature "Black Mass" and “Hostiles” seems to have the elements of a good movie; even if it’s plagued by the same feeling that it came way too late and from too disturbing a perspective that undermines Martin McDonaugh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. The acting is really strong, although Rosamund Pike just seems to be in a state of shock for half the movie, understandably so, but I can just see the acting instructions she’s given. But, I gotta pan this. The movie is long in length and has the elements of a classic sprawling western epic, but the pieces don’t go together well. The more I think about the movie, the more I suspect that there’s a lot of story that got left on the cutting room floor. Maybe the book it’s based on gives us more details, or maybe it’s too bogged in details that it doesn’t really get to a story proper well and Cooper not to so much, fill in the gaps, but to more-or-less allude instead of show or tell.


COLOSSAL (2017) Director: Nacho Vigalondo


★★★★

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Okay; I did not expect that.

So, I came into “Colossal”, fairly blind, I must confess. I really had little-to-no knowledge about the movie other than it apparently was important enough to make my Netflix queue. I tend to prefer it that way if possible, and-um,- this one threw me. I don’t know quite what I expected, but-eh, it wasn’t this. I’m not complaining either; I’m recommending this,- I guess it’s a comedy. It actually feels a little familiar to me in concept, like this feels like a short story I might’ve once read, but this was an original idea from the movie’s writer/director Nacho Vilalongo. Kudos, you caught me offguard on this one.

Colossal begins with a scene in Seoul, South Korea, where a Godzilla-like creature is spotted one day. Oh wait, this is Korea, not Japan, what’s the Korean Gojiro? Um, “The Host”? "Pulgasari? (Scratches the top of head, shrugs) I’m- I’m sure they have their own. However, the movie takes place in the New England area where an unemployed journalist, Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has been kicked out of her boyfriend Tim's (Dan Stevens) apartment after way too many times being a drunken mess of a party girl. She makes her way to her old hometown and abandoned home where, between stumbling through her waking life and falling asleep on a nearby park bench, she meets up with an old elementary school friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). He owns his father’s old bar where she used to hang out at and she soon begins diving back into her drinking and partying ways with Oscar’s gang, including his friend Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and a younger patron named Joel (Austin Stowell) who Gloria eyes as the best person in the group to have a booty call with if it’s ever needed, and at the moment, it seems needed, although Oscar, seems the most helpful to her. He gives her a part-time waitressing job at the bar and a few pieces of furniture for her apartment. At the moment, she’s barely able to get an air mattress to work.

Meanwhile, suddenly in Seoul, that monster that showed up 25 years ago has suddenly made several reappearances. Always at the same time, and always this time he’s become destructive, although there’s little-to-no rhyme to his actions, how the monster showed up or what it’s objective is. While the world’s terrified, Gloria begins to slowly sober up and she suddenly realizes that her and the monster in Seoul may in some way be connected.

I won’t reveal more than that, although I will say that the idea is pretty clever. There is a reveal of a villain that I’m not particularly crazy about, but I understand it. Personally I couldn’t help but see Anne Hathaway as a drunk and not think about her wonderful performance in “Rachel Getting Married”, which I still think of as the movie that she should’ve won the Oscar for, but I do like this character of hers though. A strange and befuddled mess who’s way more capable than she lets on most of the time, but not exactly sure or able to fight out of her more out-of-control tendencies.

Personally, I think I was so befuddled by the film  that I wasn’t letting myself really dive into the more comedic aspects of it. It is a comedy, it’s funny, but you gotta fall into a huge leap of faith before you realize what’s going on, and honestly it’s kinda hard to be funny when there’s a bunch of people on the other side of the planet getting uselessly killed everyday, no matter how strange the reason is. But I do get, and I do like that this is a comedy; if it was too drama serious, I feel like it might resemble an old “Twilight Zone” episode too much, so I think this was the right approach.

This is the first feature I've seen from director Nacho Vigalongo, a Spanish director known mostly for short film projects, and often working in science-fiction. I don't know much about his other work, but if they're as fun and inventive and "Colossal" then I'm definitely interested in looking deep into them.

“Colossal” is a fun little strange comedy, and a nice twist on the monster movie genre, that admittedly I’m more interested than I would’ve imagined awhile ago, since there’s lately been a few actual decent films in that genre lately. Add this one to that list along with “Shin Godzilla” and “Kong: Skull Island”. So, it’s a recommendation a recommendation; a fun and weird little comedy about a drunk girl who happens to be a bit of a monster.


MY COUSIN RACHEL (2017) Director: Roger Michell


★★★

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Admittedly, I have to look more into the works of Daphne Du Maurier, the author most known for “Rebecca”, which of course got adapted into one of Hitchcock’s better films. That said based on what little experience I have with her works, I get the feeling that she had issues with sex. “My Cousin Rachel”, well, it’s already got a creepy premise with the title and the fact that it’s essentially a romantic thriller. This is the second Roger Michell film I'm reviewing here, after "Tea with the Dames" and it's the second major film adaptation of this story. 

Philip (Sam Claflin) is an orphan who was raised by his cousin. Ambrose owned an English estate that he took over when he began to fall ill and traveled the rest of Europe. Eventually, Ambrose died but under suspicious circumstances. First, it was after he had married his cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz). I know work a little differently in certain countries, but let’s say she’s enough removed. However, Philip had never met her and Ambrose had sent strange letters from Florence insinuating that Rachel might be responsible for his death. However, it seems he might’ve been going a little crazy as the autopsy came back with a note of a brain tumor. Eventually, Rachel comes to the house to live. He’s prepared to confront, but because she looks and seems like Rachel Weisz, he immediately begins being infatuated with her.

Something I should mention is that Philip has, very little experience or thoughts of girls. He did go to school in the city, but except for a family friend Louise (Holliday Grainger, who’s got that Gretchen Mol look like she came out of the ‘20s and ‘30s so much that you know she’s gonna be damned to do period pieces her whole pieces.) he doesn’t seem to understand why Ambrose would even marry at all at first, but now he’s beginning to, see the appeal. (Is it just me, or does Rachel Weisz get a lot of roles like that?). Then, of course, the enchanting begins, but it’s clear that Rachel has peculiar behaviors. She makes some weird herbal teas that she makes him drink. She has a lawyer friend from Florence, Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Ravino) who she seems unusually close to. There’s reports about her spending presented by Philip’s main butler and housekeeper Kendall (Iain Glen).

Basically, it’s one of those mysteries where every clue,-, well, not every clue in this case, but most every clue seems to both make the suspect seem guilty and innocent at the same time. I call this the “Basic Instinct” mystery format, this one doesn’t have nearly as much gratuitous sex and senseless death, but there is a lot of will confusion. Philip technically has everything since there may or may not have been a will made out later, but Ambrose didn’t sign it, and a new one requires Rachel to remain a widow in order for Philip to continue giving her an allowance to stay at the estate. Of course, he’s now in love with her, and he isn’t sure how to handle that, even without suspecting that his cousin-lover killed his cousin-father.

It’s a weird movie.

I'm not sure how accurate the movie is to the original narrative but I’m not crazy about this adaptation. It’s competent, it feels close to the source material, perhaps a little too close and too abrupt perhaps. I don’t think it’s anything special offhand, it’s mostly what it feels like, a decent period piece. A lot of talk of letters and whatnot, one of those mystery stories where in today’s world, everything would most likely be a little more aware of the circumstances of the character’s death, so we’d know for certain whether Philip’s letting his mind or his penis get the best of him. It’s well-acted, well-made, I guess I'm recommending it but I suspect there’s probably a better adaptation of the work out there though, or perhaps one that’s still waiting to be made.


BRAD'S STATUS (2017) Director: Mike White


★★★

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I relate a lot to Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), the 47-year-old who runs a non-profit going through a mid-life crisis in “Brad’s Status”. It’s not really a mid-life crisis though, it’s more like, a past-life crisis. A constant worry that all he’s done is for naught and that what he’s done hasn’t led to much. As I was watching the movie I went through a lot of the same eerie emotions thoughts and emotions and reflected on past times I had similar thoughts. I thought of a line from a Sheryl Crow song, “Life Is What Happens While You’re Making Plans”. I’m sure it’s a common line that she probably stole from someone else, but I also remembered that line so vividly; it also frightened and  haunted me with its observational beauty and ominousness, and now it was doing the same, only far more ominous now that I’m about at the age that she was when she wrote it. Except, what song was it from? I could remember the line but I couldn’t remember the song. I scoured my CD collection. It wasn’t from “Tuesday Night Music Club”, and it wasn’t from “C’Mon C’Mon”, which definitely came later. It must’ve been from a song on “The Globe Sessions” I concluded, but still, I couldn’t remember which one and with internet at the moment to immediately look it up, I grabbed that one Sheryl Crow album that I only have on cassette and began to scour for my backup radio, the one with the cassette player. After rewinding, I waited for the album to play, figuring if nothing else, it’s at least a great album to wash dishes to while I seeked out which song the line was from. Only, the cassette player wasn’t working. It was only working on half-speed, and I couldn’t bare to listen to “My Favorite Mistake” like that. I grabbed another cassette, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and played that to make sure it wasn’t the player and not the cassette. I’m fairly certain it was. It’s funny how all these cassettes and later CDs where often the center of my world. I played this Sheryl Crow all the time when I first got it; many of my other CDs and cassettes even. Now, it’s such outdated technology that I’d be hard-pressed to ever be lucky enough to play them again.

Brad isn’t reflecting on his past with his friends as he takes his son Troy (Austin Abrams) cross-country to Boston to colleges, but he is essentially. He’s found himself competing with his old college friends and buddies and now he’s feeling like a failure. At least that’s how he sees it. He’s not doing too bad. His non-profit is at a bit of a downturn at the moment, but his wife Melanie’s (Jenna Fischer) job is doing okay. But he’s beginning to be out of the loop of his social circle. His friend Nick (Mike White, who wrote and directed the film) got married and he wasn’t invited, but he did see his home on Architectural Digest. His come to despise Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen) who’s gotten famous for being a political pundit after being a White House Press Secretary. He gets frustrated with his friend Jason (Luke Wilson) who’s rich enough to have a private airplane. His friend Billy (Jemaine Clement) seems happy too, despite hiding out semi-retired in Hawaii living with his two girlfriends.
If I have to describe the movie, it’s very Eric Rohmer to me. The great French New Wave-, actually he was a pre-New Wave who always seemed to make these erotic movies about people who talked. No sex, just talk, talk and imagine, pontificate on life and lust and the desire for both. “Brad’s Status” could easily fit in nicely with a couple of his “Six Moral Tales” films, especially something like “Chloe in the Afternoon”, where a main character who’s happily married is struggling with the temptations from an old friend. Here, he’s not so much tempted as reflective, and jealous of others. He talks to two Harvard students, musician friends of his kid that attend, Ananya and Maya (Shazi Raja and Luisa Lee) and sees the idealism in their eyes and begins to imagine them as his two girlfriends, or as his wife in the past, or an alternative present, and he seems to be both willing to demonize his own life and defend it as his own.

I can totally relate to a lot of this. Especially if you’re like me and all you do is stare at Facebook and see how all your friends are having kids and success and love and all those other things I’ve either avoided or failed to get miserably, but there’s also a way in which Brad seems to know less and less about his friends too. That’s something that I find in common, you hear or recognize one scattered thing, like how Jason has a private jet while he can’t even use his silver flyer card to get an upgrade to Business. Having flown Frontier and Spirit Airlines recently, I know the feeling. I know a lot of the feelings of Brad in this, even as he’s told by a knowing coed that, all she really hears are a lot of Rich White People Problems, which they are. And yet, I worry not that other people have these emotions but that they really don’t. 

The film is the second feature film written by Mike White, the great actor/writer known mostly for “Chuck and Buck” although I mostly remember him for “The Good Girl”, but he’s been rigorously erratic lately. Good movies like “School of Rock” and “Orange County” are mixed with strange diversions like “Beatriz at Dinner” and his previous directorial effort, “Year of the Dog”. He also was the writer for “The Emoji Movie” for those who want to roast him for that. I’m not sure exactly what to make of him lately, but I think I like this one of his. It’s much more well-directed, although I imagine Stiller probably helped a lot with that. I mean, it’s frustrating because it’s so familiar but at least it’s familiar frustration. I do wonder what he ponders about though, I kinda feel like he’s turning into all of Nicole Holofcener’s worst aspects though. 

Oh, and the song was "Diamond Road". It wasn't even on that cassette; I just missed it. 

MY HAPPY FAMILY (2017) Directors: Nana Ekytimishvili and Simon Gross 

★★★★1/2

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“My Happy Family” seems on it’s pure glance and surface level, seems like an alternate, more appropriate title could be, “Get Me The Fuck Away From My Big Fat Georgian Family!”. It wouldn’t be an inaccurate for the movie, although it’s a far better title and idea for a reality series, but there’s more going on in “My Happy Family”. I'm already on my third viewing ofit, trying to follow and understand everything's thats going on. Basically, it's the story of a woman who moves out of her house and starts to live life on her own. The woman's age, 52. Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) is a schoolteacher who leaves her husband Soso (Merab Ninidze) and also her kids Lamara (Berta Khapava) and Otar (Gotan Cheisvilli) and everybody else in her family, who all live together under one roof. I guess this is traditional in Georgia where there's a patriarchal and familial tradition, families live under the same roof and remain in their familial roles long after they would've otherwise outgrown them. As a 30something-year-old who still lives with his mother, who lived with her mother until her passing, and who's father lives still with his mother to this day, I guess there's a little-realized secret in today's society that this isn't as strange or uncommon as it seems, but it's not usually the expected norm, not in the West anyway. In the Republic of Georgia, it's expected and this makes Manana the outsider in her family.  This is still a world where 17-year-old girls will fall behind in their schoolwork 'cause of their divorce. 

And this is a large family; I'm not even gonna begin to describe every character or there quirks, there's too many. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is a natural comparison, although I suspect a better film for comparison to Western audiences might be Norman Jewison's "Moonstruck". That film has always had personal resonance for me as an Italian, but it's also balances the family comedy dynamics with the personal, emotional dramas pretty seemlessly. There are characters who struggle to be independent, always women, and the men who are with them, seem to enjoy more freedoms and acceptance for things that they have to fight for. 

She finds out after she moves out of the house for instance, that her husband had an affair years ago, and now has a 13-year-old son she knew nothing about earlier. She spies on them through a strangely comedic sequence if I wrote it down, and they find out their own truths about each other. Does this mean that she was right to leave her husband? Or should she have known earlier? If it wasn't her husband, it would've been being around her family. Thinking of this in combination with her student that was getting a divorce at age seventeen, I remember hearing about another recent trend where more young married couples are now living with roommates in other's apartments and houses, since they can't afford to live on their own. I suspect getting married young in this world just means getting a spouse to live at your own crowded house. (Not to mention, this is a Georgian country that's relatively new as an independent nation remember; so there's that element of old tradition vs. 

Moments of peace and quiet are treasured by Manana. Some  of these scenes are almost startling in their stillness. The film is the second film I've seen from the filmmaking team of Ekytimishvili & Gross, after their stunning feature film debut, "In Bloom", which deals with similar themes of independence and tradition, but from a teenage girl's perspective. I like that film a lot; I didn't get a chance to review it but I think film is even stronger. Georgia has quietly been producing some of the most interesting and fascinating new world cinema in recent years, inspired greatly by the Romanian New Wave and now their beginning to establish themselves as a major film market. "My Happy Family", arguably the best of the bunch so far. The film won several awards at film festivals, including Sundance before Netflix picked it up. I don't think it got an American theatrical release, and even though I've got a lot of films to review, I made an exception for this one. It's way too good, has some amazing performances in it, especially by Ia Shugliashvili, and it makes a good proper introduction to it's filmmakers who are quickly making Georgia the next go-to country in world cinema. 


EX LIBRIS: THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY (2017) Director: Frederick Wiseman

★★★★

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It’s not unusual for me to spend several days a week at the library, especially when I don’t have access to the internet at home like I currently do. As much as I love my local library, admittedly, it’s limited in its ability and scopes. We’re still reeling from a monumentally wrong-headed election question from a few years ago that cut the funding of the Henderson libraries so much that the libraries are no longer open on Mondays anymore. There’s this misbelief that libraries aren’t as used anymore as people believe, and that’s simply not true. If anything, they’re used more often, but in much different ways. One of the early shots in Frederick Weisman’s “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library”, shows a lot of my regular experience at my library, which involves sitting in front of one of several computers, and just looking over at what everybody else is doing on the computer. I take mine a few friends/relatives library cards with me, so that I can work all day o the computer, and myself, I do everything from checking email, playing games, filling out resumes, watching videos and films and TV, to writing this blog and other projects, often I’m doing all of these at the same time since I’m usually on a time crunch and there’s limited seating and space and lord help me if somebody reserves a seat, or if there’s a computer class going on. There are several reasons why my local library system is small and quaint but it’d be wrong to say that it’s not busy anymore. It’s certainly no where near the vast piles of knowledge and history that the New York Public Library system has. (And I’m fairly positive that they don’t have a Guttenberg Bible to be looked at, although I guess I could ask just to be certain.)

Still the changing times matter. There’s lots of productions, talks and classrooms happening at the main library as well as at the several dozens of branches of the New York Public Library, almost all of them fascinating. Author talks and readings, music recitals, classes for everything and everyone. In fact, one of the main points at many of the meetings of the administrators is how the library has to transition and change into an education center, one that, of course you can still check out a book or two, but their present in the community is the more vital aspect of their work these days. People who don’t realize it, don’t know that there’s still a large collection of America in the digital dark, with no internet connection of any kind, including several million in New York City. All the while, the library is scrounging to extend to the digital age. Hell, this movie is streaming and was partially funded by Kanopy, a streaming video service that I’m apart of, after I had to request that my local library system pick it up. If you have a library card and your library system is connected to it, you can watch a lot on Kanopy, including Frederick Wiseman’s films.

For those not familiar with his work, he’s a great documentarian who basically is almost a pure form of Cinema Verite. He takes his cameras, usually to a location or an area, and just lets it film, creating a mosaic of life and goings-on of the area. He makes about one a year, and they’re often very long films, this one is three and a half hours. My favorite, and the first of his films I ever saw was “At Berkeley”, which, showed Berkeley and everything that went on there. I think that’s my favorite still, not simply because of my love of college life, but because of everything that goes on there and wide variety of things happening, and that four hour film seemed to document all of it. I think these kinds of films of his are more limiting, “At Berkeley” was great because it was a treasure trove of so many different kinds of events and happenings goings on, that it seemed impossible to not find something new to engage in. “Ex Libris…” is very good. While I may enjoy lurking through the inner workings of a library for awhile, even I have some limits and there’s only so much that can be done there. It’s still a fascinating documentary and I definitely recommend it over his lighter-weight stuff like the disappointing “National Gallery”. Wiseman’s a great filmmaker, but he’s limited by the greatness of his subject unfortunately, which is why is a little difficult for singular works of his to be pointed out as his best. I might like hanging around Berkeley or the New York Library, but others might not. I like it, so I’m recommending it, and now I’m gonna go back to the other things I’m doing at the library.


BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) Director: Miguel Arteta

1/2★

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Christ, what the hell am I watching? Ugh, you ever get the feeling that you’re watching somebody’s first script? Like, I know based on the people involved that this probably isn’t a first script, but boy does it feel that way at times; like they’re try to make a point and say something, and they’re trying to, say a lot while saying a little…. This is one of the those, “Boy, what the hell was the point of that?” movies that you expect to see at a film festival or two, only with much better actors who should really be finding something better to do.

So, Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is some kind of healer. She works at a Cancer center and she’s giving a massage to Kathy (Connie Britton) an upscale uber-wealthy woman who’s daughter was helped through her cancer by Beatriz, so they’ve become unlikely friends, but Beatriz is having a bad day. For one thing, her goat got killed earlier. Yes, she has goats. No, she doesn’t have a farm or anything, she has a lot of pets, and one of them is a goat and it was killed this morning. And now, her car won’t start, so Kathy invites her to stay the night and to have dinner with some business associates of her husband Grant (David Warshovsky). They’re celebrating pushing through legislation for a land deal that’s led by noted Real Estate developer Doug Strott (John Lithgow) who’s infamous for building hotels and shopping centers up and down the West Coast in both the U.S. and Mexico, he’s there with his latest wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker). There’s also a young up-and-coming developer Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigney) who paired up on with Doug and Grant on the banking side of this deal. Obviously there’s material here for a culture clash comedy of sorts here, and I guess they get into philosophical discussions about and around it, but much of the movie just basically amounts to Beatriz and Doug, eyeing each other. She believes that she’s seen Doug somewhere before and that perhaps he was the developer who’s hotel helped obliterate and destroy her small Mexican tourist town that led her to come up to the U.S. to begin with. She’s definitely spiritual. They make it a point that she’s a vegetarian on top of everything else about her, and Doug is one of those pricks who goes off to Africa to shoot elephants and rhinos for fun. (Okay, granted he’s actually helping to save animals including endangered species by doing that ‘cause the money that he pays to hunt certain specific animals goes to protecting those endangered animals that he’s hunting, but still, I get her point in that, it’s stupid and obnoxious and why the hell do you want to kill an elephant anyway?) Basically, it boils down to a fairly simplistic narrative about how cultural, ethnic and class differences give differing points of view, and-eh, I don’t know, Salma’s class has the choice of either drowning or trying to kill those at the top?

I-eh,- I feel there’s supposed to be some kind of symbolic message with all these characters, and something in particular with Hayek’s. The movie does have a Latino director, so perhaps I’m missing something here, but I also feel like I’ve seen better stories about whatever the hell point they’re trying to make here. The story about the hotel taking over her town for instance, feels very reminiscence of several scenes in Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, but those stories feel powerful in that film. Granted, this is a dinner party movie and I shouldn’t be comparing it to those loftier terms, but this barely feels like a finished film. It’s barely 77 minutes not counting the credits and it feels stretched to get to that far. Are we supposed to automatically have so much empathy for Beatriz? Are we just supposed to automatically hate Doug? I’m not saying I do or I don’t, but the movie never gives us enough reason to really care one way or another about either of them. There’s a good movie somewhere in here, one that’s more depthful and really dives into the differences between these characters, or one that plays these differences for comedy, ‘Beatriz at Dinner” does neither. This isn’t even much of a tet-a-tet between these characters and their political philosophies and whatnot; I mean if that’s the goal, then just do it, go all “Swept Away…” on it, stick them on an island or something and make them go after each other, or something

“Beatriz at Dinner” just leaves me at a complete loss for whatever they were trying to do. Maybe I’m overthinking this, maybe this was just, “Let’s get a few famous friends together for a week or two at a nice location and shoot a quick little no-budget movie”, kind of movie. (Sigh) That would be the best explanation I can think of for why this film is the way it is, but I can still think of movies did that better too.>


THE HERO (2017) Director: Brett Haley

★★1/2

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Oh boy, what happened here? So, “The Hero” Brett Haley’s follow up to the surprise indy hit, “I’ll See You In My Dreams”, doesn’t stray much from where that movie jumped up at. It stars Sam Elliott like that one did, and much of the movie feels like a melodic and elegiac look at old age and trying to figure out the next path in life when life is near it’s end, but not quite. I wasn’t particularly fond of “I’ll See You In My Dreams”, but I was hoping this follow-up would possibly take the concept and extend it a bit. It does seem like dreams matters to Haley, the movie actually continues to go back and forth into the idea of dreams, often conflating it with movies, something that’s not uncommon. I often, like Lee (Elliott) the old-time western actor does in the film, seem to mistake dreams for movies. I’ve often found myself staying asleep as long as I can, while I experience what I perceive as a film, but in reality would be my dreams, especially since I’m all-too-aware that I can’t always grasp the movie or dream once I was up.

Then the movie, kinda falls into some clichés. Lee is an aged actor who’s mostly on his own these days. He occasionally gets a voiceover job selling barbecue but he’s a western hero archetype in a modern world. In fact, “The Hero” is not only the name of this movie, but the name of his most notable movie that he’s most identified with. Nowadays though, he spends his days getting high with an old actor buddy who’s more stoned out that he is, (Nick Offerman) in between sporadically accepting Lifetime Achievement awards. Then, he finds out that he’s dying of cancer. He’s debating whether or not to get a surgery that would, at best give him a couple extra years. He tries to sort things out with an estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter) while he also starts dating a young stand-up comic, Charlotte (Laura Prepon) as well as her mother and his ex-wife Val (Katharine Ross,- wait really? Katharine Ross, that Katharine Ross?! Holy Fuck, when’s the last time she’s been in a movie?!). Without giving too much away though, the movie drifts from this surreal meets the modern for awhile and seems to dive headlong into the hyperreal world of modern Hollywood, where the era of the viral video rules all. Honestly, I wish they didn’t because outside of some Edna St. Vincent Millay references that seem to exist in this movie to justify the tone and some loving nods to Sam Elliott’s own traditional archetype, this movie is basically just a very, very light re-imagining, narratively at least, of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”. I mean, I guess there’s some other influences, I can easily see this as a discarded Sofia Coppola film that Brett Haley picked up or something, but I could basically predict a lot of the developments ahead of time, especially once I picked up on “The Wrestler” parallels.

He does eventually return to that surreal world dream movie that seems exactly like the kind of movie I’d love to watch in a dream, and I wish he peppered the movie more with that kind of stuff. I think it would’ve distinguished it more than just simply a good Sam Elliott vehicle. I like enough of it to struggle with panning the film but Brett Haley still feels like he’s in that weird in-between spot for me, where he’s not quite melodic enough for his movies to be interesting as mood pieces or naval-gazing dwellings on aging, or for that matter are good enough to work as really compelling narrative. I’m waiting for him to pick one or the other and then to do it well, not have him split the difference and give me 50% of both.


THE NEWSPAPERMAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BEN BRADLEE (2017) Director: John Maggio


★★★

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When I started writing a review of “The Newspaperman,” I stopped the movie on my DVD player and went into a long diatribe about some of my failures in running this blog, most notably how I had stopped seeking out presenting my work to other editors or more accomplished and named internet periodicals, and my loss of preparedness and study of others, and how that had led into some other disappointments, complications and laziness on my part in running this blog. Perhaps, I will use what I wrote in that flash of improvisation for some other writing down the road, the original point which I had gotten lost in was that if you asked me to name a newspaper editor, the first name that would come to my mind is Ben Bradlee, who passed away five years ago and hadn’t been the Editor of the Washington Post since 1991. It had pretty much been glued into us that the Post was the premiere newspaper when it came to investigative journalism, and now that journalism is once again under constant attack by a corrupt house of crook we laughingly call a Presidential administration, I suspect now is as good a time as ever for a comprehensive look back on Ben Bradlee. The HBO documentary does just that. Obviously the big thing that everybody knows is Watergate. The second big thing is probably the Pentagon Papers, both of the Post’s involvement in those historic incidents in American history have had Academy Award nominated films detailing them and Jason Robards, Jr. famously won an Academy Award for portraying Bradlee in “All the President’s Men”. That’s how I’ve always pictured Bradlee, the veteran editor who came from the old days of newspaper reporting, who was gruff and determined, insistent on finding and seeking out the story at all costs. We get a little more of the man here. For instance, the Harvard grad was apparently apart of a longerm sociological study that analyzed his life after Harvard. That was odd. He was also in the South Pacific in WWII as a member of the Navy, and spend his post-war years as a foreign correspondent in Paris.

He was an editor for Newsweek, the Post’s magazine subbranch before becoming the editor for the Post that I didn’t know although I probably should’ve. The movie is mostly what you expect, clips and stock photos from him and details of the stories he worked on and life he lived, with talking heads clips from those who you’d expect. The movie uses narration in Bradlee’s own words from the audio recording of his autobiography, that I appreciated, especially as somebody who’s really gotten into audiobooks lately, particularly biographies. The only fair stumbling block I would say they go into, and it’s a fair one outside of his previous marriages and affair is the Janet Cooke “Jimmy’s World” incident. Be weary of any journalistic article that sounds too much like a piece of fiction when read. The story might be real or fake of course, but news articles, in my experience should be as unentertaining as possible. Primarily fact-based and getting to the point of what they’re covering. Perhaps that’s another reason I’m not as drawn to journalism as I often wish I were, but even the greats can get caught up. It’s amazing it took as long as it did with Bradlee, who was infamously close to John and Jackie Kennedy, back when such friendships between the administration and Press were frowned upon.

"The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” is as much a look back at a past time and era as well as a look at his life. I don’t know what Bradlee made of the modern media landscape or these troubled times we live in, but it’s definitely a world that we don’t know how. “The Newspaperman” is an appropriate name for him, perhaps he was the last one. It was said that his death in many ways marked the end of the 20th Century. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s a fine tribute to the man if it is and if that’s the case, then I think the 20th Century went out with a great man to go out on.


BURNING SANDS
(2017) Director: Gerard McMurray


★★1/2

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I will never understand fraternities. I certainly won’t understand any of the hazing rituals that are brought about from them. There was a powerful film a couple years ago called “Goat” that probably is the premiere movie that shows the sadistic and most evil view of these practices to the extreme, although I often fear that we’re still taming this shit down. Look joining a frat has positives I’m sure, but if you have to humiliate yourself just to be in it, it’s probably bad.

“Burning Sands” benefits by telling this story in a more personal, narrative manner as oppose to just showing a bunch of abuse for ninety minutes. It also adds a level of irony by having the movie take place at a traditional HBCU. Zurich (Trevor Jackson) or Z as he’s nicknamed, decides to go through the rituals after his father couldn’t. So, he’s getting forced to do push ups in the forest and get food thrown at him, and several other humilations. Of course there’s the obligatory paddle spankings as well, which is still the gayest thing ever about fraternities, or sororities for that matter.

He is getting conflicting opinions though. He’s got a couple girlfriends Angel (Serayah) and Rochon (Imani Hakim) who confront him, and a Professor (Alfre Woodard) although interestingly, the school’s Dean (Steve Harris) is a huge promoter and protector of the fraternity, although I doubt he knows exactly what goes on with the initations these days. Or perhaps he does and is diluted that somehow it’s a character building thing that’s worth the pain.

Honestly, despite everything, I’m not entirely sure what the movie’s trying to say or do. There’s some strong performances and inevitable disaster of the results of fraternity hazings, but I just found this movie a little too inevitable and frankly I think I prefer the graphic and unflinching nature of “Goat” in comparison. The movie does add a different subtext considering the African-American people and cast, but I also think about this subplot in “School Daze” and find that was probably just as convincing to me of the negative aspect of HBCU frats and that was thirty years ago and only one part of that movie that explore several aspects to campus life and the modern-day necessity and outdated of that particular brand of graduate institutions. This is director Gerard McMurray’s debut feature, and it’s an interesting little independent, but I think it’s got an idea of what to show but doesn’t really have a clear vision about what it wants to say about it. Interesting, but ultimately, I don’t think the film was necessary viewing.

HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY (2017) Director: Daniel Raim

★★★1/2

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Storyboarding is a skill that, for the best interests of both me and Hollywood, I practice and work at as little as humanly possible. One of the reasons I type so much is that I cannot draw. I can visualized, and if necessarily, I may occasionally make a crude scribble or two of a shot or two if no other conceivable option exists, but that’s about it. The thing is, storyboarding is essentially the first step in directing. In some ways, the first step in writing too. (And of course, it goes without saying that animation of all kinds is all storyboard) I’m equally amazed at the great storyboard artists and directors, the Hitchcocks, the Spielbergs, the Scorseses, who love to storyboard as much as they can, as well as some of those great directors who admit to not storyboarding their films, Ang Lee’s the most astonishing name I can think of for this, especially some of his action movies. (I’m not even that big on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, but how in the hell did he not storyboard for that? Or for “Life of Pi’ for that matter!?) This is to say that I am of both minds as to whether or not it is a necessary evil or an essential tool to help create movies. It is fair to say that storyboard artists of all kinds do not get the credit they deserve. I met a big storyboard artist once, Mark Andrews, who was a Head of Story for some of Pixar’s big projects, who would go on to win an Oscar as a co-director of “Brave”. He is ambitious, in his continuous climb up the Hollywood ladder, but mostly, he likes to draw he points out. I wish if nothing else, I had that sentiment towards drawing, even if I was untalented at it, and I surely would be, I believe that loving to draw alone would get me work more regularly than I do, and I encourage anybody who indeed loves to draw to immediately seek out work in Hollywood.

Research is more my lane. While it’s usually more the field of production designers and art directors, costume designers and propmakers, I can assure you that writing takes a lot of research. Not so much here, in my mostly opinion blog, although I do research more than people may realize, but if I’m writing a screenplay or a story, I often have to seek out incredibly detailed minutia just to get myself off the ground to begin telling some stories I’ve written. If I can’t do research on certain things at particular times, I often push those scripts aside for awhile until I can and work on something that’s far less extensive.

“Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story”, a brisk and loving documentary, is about Harold and Lillian Michaelson, Hollywood’s most secret of prized secret weapons for decades. Harold was the best storyboard artist in town; Lillian owns the film research library that used to be at MGM studios but then bounced around from the American Film Institute, to old Hollywood General Studios where Amerrican Zoetrope Productions to the Paramount lot, for free, and then Dreamworks called and asked her to join that new company. They were even the inspiration for Fiona’s parents in “Shrek 2”.  Together they’ve basically made Hollywood. Michaelson worked for DeMille, Hitchcock, Nichols, creating storyboards and visualizing shots and sequences often before the filmmakers who typically get the most credit ever conceive of their shots. He created the famous shot from “The Graduate”, among several others. He storyboarded “The Birds”, “Marnie”, “The Ten Commandments”, “Ben-Hur”, the list goes on and on actually....

He and Lillian moved to Hollywood shortly after he finished his stint in the Army during WWII, and decided to go into drawing afterwards. Lillian is a quiet but strong-willed orphan who left followed him out soon enough and they got married. Eventually while Harold’s career grew, Lillian worked as a volunteer for Leila Alexander at the MGM Research Library before taking it over after the office was cut and moved. She’s responsible not just for keeping up the library, but also for organizing and detailing it in such a way that the production designers, costume designers and the such who come in for research can seek out and find inspiration and ideas for their work, as well as find out what kind of underwear did young Jewish women wear in the 1890s, like she had to find for “Fiddler On the Roof”. “I put space and religion next to each other, because they’re both about looking up into the heavens”, she observes. As a writer, my instincts screams, “Yes!” That’s the kind of detail that we of detail that we often need. Having a tunnel-visioned look at something is fine for some things, but it’s usually those breaks in between, those stumbling into other ideas through the most oddest of circumstances and cross-connections that real inspiration and ideas can come.

She could also out the most obscure pieces of research as well. You know to see what the inside of the CIA looks like, she knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who had photos. You need to see what a cocaine manufacturing plant looks like, she knows the drug kingpin who can take her on the private jet down to South America to find out.

Harold inevitably got bumped up to Production Designer, originally for Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got Your Gun”, and he became prolific at that as well. He earned Oscar nominations for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Terms of Endearment” and also helped bring up a lot of other production designers and art directors in the business from that.

While the film history is fascinating to me, the movie is also a love letter to their love story. He would write poems and create holiday and birthday cards, and had many children, one of them autistic back in the time when they thought it was a Freudian psychological issue that the parents didn’t love their kids enough. (Deep sigh). Harold passed in ’07 and Lillian retired shortly after, and now resides in the Motion Picture Retirement Home. The movie has a recent interview that’s splice with old footage of them as well as who’s who of talking heads. Him with his pipe and drawings and her with the research and books; they were essentially the pseudo ma and pa for all of Hollywood at some point or another. “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story” is one of those great feel good stories about Hollywood that we honestly don’t have enough of, and for that alone I enjoyed it. Frankly, it makes me want to consider looking into being a film researcher like Lillian; I think I would enjoy and be good at that.


SUPER DARK TIMES (2017) Director: Kevin Phillips 



★★★

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“Super Dark Times” begins with a shot cow dying in a school cafeteria, which apparently is common enough that there’s a police shorthand number for it. Oh-kay. It’s also based around those kinds of young teenage boys who are, just annoying and stupid enough to piss me off. Like, I know I went high school in the late ‘90s-early ‘00s, which is really different than the regular 1990s; basically it’s pre-and-post Columbine is, but still, I don’t remember most of male friends openly talking, bragging and explaining their masturbation sessions with me, or frankly much of their singular sexual discovery-, in fact, considering the trope, there wasn’t much talk about sex at all, and usually the ones who did bring up sex in some ways were not getting any. Or, they were my friend-, well, I’m not gonna reveal her name here, but let’s call her BIRD, who brought up how much sex she was getting all the fucking time. (Deep sigh breath) But yeah, I actually do recall my female friends talking more about sex, but you know, they were my trustworthy friends and we talked about everything. But talking among guys, like-, like just their guy friends talking and sharing their sexual experiences together like it was nothing,-, I mean, there might have been one or two people who would go through the yearbook and talk about which girls they’d fuck, but from my experience, they were few and far between and I wouldn’t hang out with them, and frankly I was always amazed when more female classmates of mine, but I suspect they acted different around them. Generally, it irks me and rings wrong and either not realistic or realistic but too stupid to deal with when I see stuff like this in a movie. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” I guess got away with it, because those scenes actually related to some of the plot and themes of that film, but when it’s just used to establish the characters, I usually just end up hating the characters.

I feel the same way about stoners who are way too anxious to talk about how much they love pot. Like, I have some potheads friends-, I mean, I’m in film, so that’s not shocking, but even outside of that, I have stoner friends, but-eh, yeah, if it’s such the center of somebody’s world that it’s the first thing they mention about themselves, that’s a big red flag for me. There isn’t a main character like that here, but there is one character who immediately spots a bag of marijuana and is immediately like, “Hey, let’s smoke it!” “Let me buy it from you?!” and he’s like that with anything that’s remotely taboo. The other boys are too, but still…- Anyway, the friend who talks about masturbating too much and wants to get high, play with deadly weapons and basically do anything stupid that could/should get him in trouble is named Daryl (Max Talisman), and he accidentally gets killed early on. I’m okay with this personally, but everybody else,…- (Sigh)

Okay, there’s one other weird thing about my high school. Um, anybody see “River’s Edge”? That movie where a kid’s dead and the parents can’t find him, but like everybody in the school apparently knows where he is? I’ve actually never seen that movie, but apparently something very similar, years ago happened at the high school I attended. My mother always used to bring it up; I couldn’t find the record of it myself, although I didn’t look that hard, but she’s pretty confident that something like that occurred like around the time I was born, give or take a couple years and you know what, I can kinda believe it knowing the area, especially back then. So, this is a bit of a trigger for me, the Daryl kid accidentally gets killed by Josh’s (Charlie Tahan) brother’s sword. Yes, sword. His older brother’s in the Marines, but still, he’s got Checkov’s sword, there’s a few kids playing with it, and Daryl accidentally gets killed. The kids bury some leaves over him and ditch the murder weapon and hope that they’re never connected to anything, but Zach (Owen Campbell) starts to have some nightmares. On top of the school and town on alert for Daryl, who’s reported missing eventually, he’s starting to go all “Crime and Punishment” with guilt, and yeah, he should. But then the movie takes a third turn towards the paranoia side, something very Polanski to shorthand it. There’s another kid, an older drug dealer named John (Ethan Botwick) that apparently fell off a closed bridge. The kids were on that bridge earlier playing around a bit much in that way where it’s obvious that they have never seen “Saturday Night Fever” all the through. Josh also starts exhibiting some unusual behavior. He’s showing up at strange places, missing where expected, both him and Zach have a crush on Allison (Elizabeth Cappucino) who has her own troublemaking stupid friend, Meghan (Adea Lennox) but the normal kind that turns everything into a party every chance she gets. (Hmm, I have a couple female friends like this, but yeah, let’s say this was, um-, BIRD again.)

I was pretty skeptical of “Super Dark Times”, partly ‘cause of the plot and characters and partly because it’s kind of a dumb title, but I’ll admit that the movie kept me on my toes. I’m not big on the dream/nightmare sequences, I think something else could’ve been there to pad the movie out  a bit, but they’re done interestingly. I feel the like the movie just kept intended to change genre and perspectives on me a lot. Sometimes I like a movie that does that, (LOOK UP DIRECTOR) “In the Bedroom” is probably a good example of that done fairly well, although I tend to think about Claude Chabrol movies when I see this, and I’ve rarely been big on the ways he used to do that. I’m a bit unsure how I feel about it here. I usually like when there’s a high school movie that’s basically a genre movie but using kids, “Brick” comes to mind right away here, that used film noir, and I think that genre has a way of working a bit more easily into the melodramatics of high school, but this kind of thriller should work as well, if not better even. Maybe because the mystery aspect doesn’t work as well for me, that I’m reluctant to embrace it, I think I’m still gonna recommend “Super Dark Times”. It’s a bit uneven for me, but there’s enough interesting here that I think it does work. The movie was directed by Kevin Phillips, I suspect it’s one of his first films; he’s got enough visual style for me to be interested in a later film of his. I hope he works with a more streamlined script in the future, but it worth a viewing even if much of the elements left me somewhat frustrated.

MISS KIET'S CHILDREN (2017) Directors: Peter Latasar & Petra Latasar-Czisch


★★★


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I’m not entirely sure what I expected from “Miss Kiet’s Children”, although I guess I was expected some memorably interesting and important teacher. I guess, she’s a good teacher although honestly I don’t find Miss Kiet that fascinating. I wasn’t crazy about how dismissive he seems to one little girl who had fallen and gotten her pants dirty, and was practically crying in order to call her mother. The little girl was complaining about how the teacher never understood her entirely since she doesn’t naturally speak Dutch, and was seeking a translator.

A lot of Miss Kiet’s class are refugees, many from Syria, and many were struggling with this new language and their new lives, but they still were learning the basics of math and their letters and numbers, cursive and print. The whole movie seems to be taking place in one day, and the movie has a way of focusing extensively on the kids. The camera angle is the big thing, staying right at kid’s level the entire time. We zone in intimately on the kids, often the most troubled of the group unfortunately. It seems like everybody else is going about the activities and the day that they’re assigned fairly well, but we end up watching those who struggle with the assignments or having fun and making friends, or even just getting through a bad day.

It’s a pretty good elementary classroom; part of that is just advancements in technology. I don’t even remember if my grade even had computers back when I was that young, and if we did, they certainly weren’t in the classroom; we had a special room just for computers back then. I do remember dancing a little during some of the P.E. classes, although I don’t recall our teacher being the leader of that aspect. I guess there were plays and such to help us express emotions. I was a little started to see this as a whole separate classroom, one complete with Bert & Ernie on the walls, it felt like a dance studio was apart of the curriculum. 

I must admit, that I couldn’t help but be struck by some of my own memories of being a kid, as well as some memories of some of my favorite teachers, talking about some of their most difficult students, like my old Jr. Varsity Quiz and 7th Grade Reading teacher Mrs. Bekeart talking about a kid from, I want to say either Japan or Central America, who didn’t speak a word of English, and started doing okay as he had to learn from the beginning as everybody else was more advanced, and then he freaked out in class after complaining that the wind can’t be blue, his shirt was blue. (They hadn’t gotten to homonyms and homophones yet, with him.)

As to “Miss Kiet’s Children”, well, I wasn’t overly crazy about Miss Kiet, but she seems to be a good teacher, certainly reminds me of some I had for good and for bad. I guess I like some of the film, and how the kids interact, play and learn; the movie’s cinema verité approach puts me right back into elementary school and I suspect that even with the undercurrent of the refugee crisis being focused, I think the movie’s basically just trying to show, what it’s like to be in a modern elementary school class these days. I think it does that well, so ultimately I’m gonna recommend it for that.

THE FARTHEST (2017) Director: Emer Reynolds


★★★★


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Subtitled "Voyager in Space", "The Farthest documents the history and details of the famed Voyager spaceship. Originally sent out after approval from the Nixon administration, the ship's main objective was to take pictures of Saturn and Jupiter, it inevitably lasted long enough to also reach Uranus and Neptune and all the moons of those surrounding planets, before finally reaching out and recently breaking out of contact with Earth and becoming the first man-made object to travel outside the Solar System. 

It was mostly a data collecting mission, which is did do. The pictures and images from Voyager, including a famous shot looking back on earth after it had traveled the stars are not only informative but breathtakingly amazing. It's because of Voyager that we have such renewed interested in certain parts of the Solar System now. Mostly though, it's know for having on board, several message and notations intended as informational calls in case the ship is ever found by some other beings out there. Most famously, a record of the world's music that includes Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Good". The movie details it's journey from it's beginning to now, the amazing luck and ability it had to actually reach as far as it does and get back to us, without much interference or help. (I mean, parts of this thing are basically still duct-taped together after a few decades. It's ingenuity in it's engineering is only match in it's awe-inspired journey and relevance. It's out there still, somewhere, proof that humans indeed existed, for somebody, anybody to inevitably find and hopefully have some kind of brief glimpse into what we are/were as a species.

Sure, maybe there isn't life out there but that is something. I'm usually admiration I have for NASA accomplishes and "The Farthest" is no difference. Yeah, there's nothing here that I didn't know beforehand, and there's nothing particularly special or unique about it as a documentary, but I still can't help but be enthralled by it. "The Farthest" is a loving document and tribute to one of their most underrated accomplishments, possibly it's most important one in fact.

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